Hung out to dry

Poor Nobel laureate Timothy Hunt says he feels “hung out to dry” by UCL and the European Research Council, who decided they didn’t want to be associated with a man who makes disparaging remarks when invited as a representative of the science establishment to speak to the Korean Female Scientists and Engineers. For those who missed it, his comment was

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry….

I’m in favour of single-sex labs.

Invited later to comment after reflection on his remarks, he offered the classic non-apology: I’m sorry you were offended.

“I’m really really sorry that I caused any offence, that’s awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

His wife, Mary Collins, an esteemed immunologist, also at UCL, expresses shock and dismay at the university’s rapid response — pressuring him to resign forthwith from his “honorary researcher” position — and offers a defence that itself seems remarkably old-fashioned: He likes to cook. And besides

he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.

In one sense I think he’s right that it is unfair, just as it is unfair that one person is hit by a cosmic ray and develops cancer, while another is spared. It’s not fair to fire someone for a single spontaneous mistake. But it’s also unfair to hire someone as an “honorary researcher” because he did some good work 25 years ago. For all I know, he’s still doing great science, or plotting out the course that science might take over the next century. But he was speaking in South Korea in a symbolic role, as a genius, and symbols don’t have the same rights that human beings do. I’ve written before about the cult of genius in science that gave us such esteemed figures as James Watson. It’s not that I don’t think that thinking hard about one topic could yield beautiful insights about apparently unrelated topics.

He just blurted out the kind of “jocularity” that was standard bonding behaviour among male scientists of his generation, and the august institutions that no longer find it useful to have his name associated with them are rushing to separate themselves, in part to forestall criticism inspired by many years of ignoring or actively fostering sexism in science. Someone who built a brilliant scientific career in the days when “girls in the lab” were expected to put up with that sort of shit might have interesting things to say about how things have changed, and how they could continue to change, including even the increased distraction of sexual liaisons between labmates — though the way he phrased it suggests that he has the distraction of falling in love even when he’s all by himself — but he may have just destructive self-aggrandisement to offer. And in the latter case, he’s not a useful symbol anymore.

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