Credit Paloma Baytelman

Be ready for the glass house treatment: Tim Hunt’s lessons

Evelyn Waugh’s scathingly satirical novel Decline and Fall features the pitfalls encountered by the ‘younger generation’.  Now the ‘older generation’ could also benefit from similar forewarning. They are not yet fit for life in the glass house with everyone’s activities and utterances being put out to the whole world in real time. They know how to use all the amenities of modern information and communication technologies. But they are not well equipped to cope with its corollary—namely, the viral spreading of news; the immediate ‘stream of consciousness’ type of reactions; the quick formation of groups denouncing individuals and institutions, requiring immediate accountability, etc. I would maintain that we all stand to lose, older and younger generations, if we do not find ways to handle this.

Enters Tim Hunt.  I still remember fondly when he recalled asking a much older colleague why he was still active in research: “It is so painful not to know,” he replied.  His recent remarks about girls in the lab took place on the occasion of an informal luncheon themed ‘women’s science journalist dinner’ at the 2015 World Science Journalist Conference in Seoul, this month. There he was asked for a few impromptu words at the end of the dinner. These remarks were half-serious but nevertheless rather stupid. Though I would not be surprised if those who now mightily display their political correctness by exorcising Tim Hunt, in their private circumstances make similar remarks about women or men or transgenders or whatever sexual variety exists. A case of hypocrisy—ask Evelyn Waugh—but that is not the key point.

A Tweet made the world explode. Tim Hunt has been left to pick up the pieces. He was sacked almost on the spot by University College London where he was honorary professor; the Royal Society dismissed him as a member and the European Commission—not the ERC itself, one should note—expelled him from the Scientific Council of the European Research Council.

Tim Hunt himself—and all of us who are not born in the digital world and era—should be aware of this new state of affairs. Navigating this world—which is permeated by communication and information channels—requires us to always realise that, apart from our discussions and our weird jokes in private rooms, almost all we are saying in public stands a chance of being disseminated in unimaginable ways.

But what I find immensely more worrying is that institutions such as UCL, the Royal Society or the EC are so concerned that the outside world sees them as not being politically correct.  As a result, they lose all sense of their own values and disregard each and every form of due process, which they always keenly and proudly claim to adhere to.

No doubt, they are using social media and the Internet in general to disseminate information, reach out to large audiences, get reactions to consultations or learn from feedback. But what they have obviously not learned is that in social media strong opinions are being formed, virtual and temporary communities and alliances are created, not necessarily based on well-informed or balanced arguments or views but more often on emotions and taking the form of witch hunts.

It is amazing to see that no institutional habit exist of simply sitting back for a while, thinking about what is the issue and whether a reaction of the institution is warranted. And, if so, subsequently decide what reaction is required and after which normal due process.

Universities and Academies of Science are supposed to have a strong professional ethos. And a tradition of freedom and of not reacting to each and every uproar coming from the outside. The EC is different, but it too has its formal procedures. In this case, they are apparently not prepared to stand by and uphold and defend their own principles. It must be a combination of not being prepared to the storms that can build up in cyberspace, and a lack of spine in dealing with sensitive issues such as gender.

There is a very serious additional issue. It is not widely known that it was neither the President of the ERC nor its Scientific Council who discontinued Tim Hunt’s membership of the Scientific Council. The European Commission took the decision; the Scientific Council was only informed. This is a flagrant example of disrespecting the independence of the ERC.

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This episode demonstrates that EuroScience and other scientific organisations have been right when they kept saying from the beginning—as well as during the restructuring after the review of the first period of the ERC—that the ERC must be really independent. It works within a policy framework set by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. But then the Scientific Council should be in charge, and it should also be in control of finances and personnel decisions as regards the staff. The national funding agencies in many members states show this can easily be done with all due respect for accountability.

Peter Tindemans

Secretary General EuroScience

Photo credit: Paloma Baytelman


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5 thoughts on “Be ready for the glass house treatment: Tim Hunt’s lessons”

  1. There is nothing even remotely funny abour his remarks, nothing
    even remotely proper about his behaviour during and after the incident. A
    man of his stature has to be careful what he says in public. And
    instead of people crying “he has been hung out to dry”, the take-home
    message could be that several Institutions have sent a clear message –
    such behaviour is unaceptable!

  2. 26 June 2015

    Nobel Laureates are very eminent scientists and scholars
    rewarded and acknowledged for their particular contributions to human knowledge
    and well-being.

    However, on being awarded a Nobel Prize, the winners are
    presumed, by both themselves and us, to be experts on every subject in the
    world. Scientific Laureates have a great disciplinary expertise and as
    scientists also have an understanding of scientific issues beyond their
    particular ambit as does the rest of the scientific community. But in
    everything else their opinion is as good, or bad, as that of the next person.

    So they do have a tendency to pontificate on all matters
    under the sun.

    Tim Hunt is a typical example and he has said some
    outrageous things in the past, principally to provoke his audience.

    However, his recent comments on gender in the laboratory
    were crass to say the least. Especially so as we endeavour to achieve gender
    balance in scientific and engineering research.

    While the reactions of University College London and the Royal
    Society may have been too extreme, that of the European Commission regarding
    Hunt’s position on the European Research Council is entirely reasonable. The
    European Commission has set targets for the involvement of women in its
    programme and has probably come closest in achieving this aim than most
    national bodies. Given its declared policy in this area to have such a high
    profile personality say such damaging things is unacceptable and I consider
    that the Commission acted correctly in this instance.

    Prof Brian Cox, Royal Society Professor for Public
    Engagement in Science, has said that what Tim Hunt said might be what one could
    expect from a white, male in his seventies. This is no excuse. There are lots
    of us in this category but we do not go around expressing sexist views!

    Tony Mayer

    EuroScience Governing Board member

  3. How do you know that his remarks were half-serious? And since Political correctness has now the meaning of “unable to take a joke”, “overtly political”, “hypocritical” etc. I have to take an exception to the labeling of the shunning of Tim Hunt as Political correctness! There is nothing even remotely funny abour his remarks, nothing even remotely proper about his behaviour during and after the incident. A man of his stature has to be careful what he says in public. And instead of people crying “he has been hung out to dry”, the take-home message could be that several Institutions have sent a clear message – such behaviour is unaceptable!
    Let’s not forget that he had a chance to publically correct the perception of the remarks he made and to appologize, instead he made it worse. So I am going to say to all the defenders of Tim Hunt, all the people that say he has been a victim of PC, shame on you! His behaviour had appropriate consequences, too bad others like him escaped such consequences.L

  4. One correction: Tim Hunt asked to resign from the Royal Society Awards Committee, not the Royal Society itself