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.
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.
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Paloma Baytelman
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