Culture

What Tim Hunt’s Excommunication Tells Us about the Culture of the Modern Academy

Sir Tim Hunt has lab coats in a twist.

Addressing the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea on Monday, Hunt — at the time Honorary Professor with the University College London School of Life and Medical Sciences — reportedly said: “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 criticize them they cry.”

Sir Richard Timothy Hunt is — predictably — no longer Honorary Professor with the University College London School of Life and Medical Sciences. He also no longer sits on the Biological Sciences Awards Committee of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, the oldest learned society for science in existence today, whose members have included Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Stephen Hawking. He resigned from both positions when his comments provoked a media firestorm.

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I’ve no interest in defending Hunt’s remarks, which are prima facie objectionable, but I do find noteworthy Hunt’s own defense, which is twofold: After telling BBC Radio 4 that it “was intended [as] a light-hearted, ironic comment,” Hunt added: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth.”

First, I’m inclined to think that Hunt’s comment was a — terribly formed — joke. His own wife is a laboratory scientist. Presumably he does not think that Dr. Mary Collins, a professor of immunology at University College London and a director with both the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control and the Medical Research Council Centre for Medical Molecular Virology, is constantly falling in love or weeping about rejected hypotheses.

Second, while Hunt clearly improperly generalized from what was probably an encounter he had in his own laboratory experience, his point about the practice of science as such is important — and is affirmed, unwittingly, by his critics.

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Tim Hunt is a serious scientist. He shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research. In 2006 he was awarded the Royal Medal, whose past recipients include Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick, and Paul Dirac. His topic at the conference where he made his offending remark was the public good of science, and why scientific research should be publicly supported. He was making, as the Royal Medal award says, “important contributions to the advancement of natural knowledge” — in this case, on the subject of cancer.

Hunt’s critics showed that they are less concerned with what is discovered than with who is doing the discovering.

What his critics proved, by encouraging and praising his ouster, is that they are not particularly concerned with said contributions. It’s not enough to conduct serious scientific work; you must hold the correct views. The former — your theses, your monographs, your Nobel Prize — are no compensation for a dearth of the latter. And it seems an obvious corollary that, eventually, the latter will make up for a dearth of the former.

Hunt’s critics showed that they are less concerned with what is discovered than with who is doing the discovering.

#related#This is a toxic state of affairs. Obviously it is a problem if, say, a scientist is creating an uncomfortable work environment for his peers. But immediate dismissal is not the only solution. And, more to the point, there is no evidence that Hunt ever did so. He offered an unfair, overbroad, unintentionally unfunny opinion about women in laboratory science — and for that he was excommunicated.

So in the modern academy, you’re welcome to contribute to the advancement of natural knowledge, to come and research and help find a cure to cancer.

But not if you might be a bigot.

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