Rocks for Tea

A blog by Phormulater

Science is the loser here

by Phormulater
on June 21, 2015
When a man or women makes a contribution as great as Sir Tim Hunt’s, it’s not right that a couple of sentences should destroy their reputation and legacy.

For those of you who have been living under a pile of sedimentary rocks, Sir Tim was forced to resign from University College London last week. Otherwise, he would have been sacked for making the following comment at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea: "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.” This statement was the catalyst of a shameful furore stirred up by social media, poorly researched editorials and universities.

Now, we can all agree what he said was an ill-advised joke that bears little resemblance to real life in a lab. While I'm sure many of you know ‘intralabular’ couples, most men and women working in science are not star-crossed lovers. Firstly, because we’re in a lab and that sort of astrological tosh would be best left at the handwash basin. But also because there are better places to bond than over a petri dish full of bugs and the hum of a -80˚C freezer.

While the response was (pardon the cliché) political correctness gone mad, my concern with the backlash from the media and various organisations is what it says about the public’s view of science. In my opinion, this is far more dangerous and regressive than what Sir Tim said.

It appears the public doesn’t appreciate or acknowledge scientific research. This is a sad fact that I, as a trained pharmacist and young scientist, have discovered in my short time in the lab and it pains me to admit it.

If the public placed any value on science, they would not want Sir Tim to resign. Imagine you were offended and he had apologised to you – what would you do? Would you allow him to stay researching cancer and biology if he made, for example, a public apology? Or would you choose turn your back on him and his astonishing scientific record simply to make an example of him? You decide. The media is now the metaphorical Sword of Damocles and this time it has come down on the wrong side.

Before this happened, nobody knew much about Sir Tim or his work, which made him deserving of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001. In 1982, he discovered cyclin in fertilised sea urchin eggs, and the work was published in the highly respected research journal Cell the following year.

Sir Tim, along with Paul Nurse and Leland Hartwell, made a discovery that underpins cell division in all plant and animal life. It is why he received the highest accolade in science. He has featured in more than 150 peer-reviewed articles, his work has been cited more than 20,000 times and he has supervised dozens of PhD students. These are numbers that many of us could only dream of achieving. Yet no-one is taking these achievements into account in this media storm. It’s not that people are discrediting his work; it’s far worse than that – they don’t care about it. If they did, they would realise what a loss to the scientific community his resignation represents.

The BBC ran an excellent series called Beautiful Minds in 2010, with one episode dedicated to Professor Hunt. It’s a one-hour documentary about his academic life and how he came to discover cyclin. It’s a great watch and the whole series is available on YouTube. It shows you what he’s really like. That particular episode has been viewed 2,500 times since being put up in 2010. In contrast, the 1:15 min video of women in ‘#distractinglysexy’ poses in response to his comments notched up 15,000 views in two days. Exactly.

Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, to keep it simple, I say I’m a PhD student in biology and then rattle off the layman’s description. Half the time I get an “OK” accompanied by a quizzical look and a shake of the head. The other half? You guessed it – a “better you than me” response that is, without fail, accompanied by a sense of superiority. I’ve heard it word for word from my old boss, current flatmate and the taxi driver last week, to name but a few. I can’t remember anyone actually saying something encouraging.

The public is apathetic towards research scientists and the work we do. They care when a physician is on the morning news discussing a new therapy, because that will impact their lives. But they never see people such as Sir Tim, who do the far more important and difficult groundbreaking work.

Those who are lambasting him see a gnarled old dinosaur and have reduced this situation to ‘man in white coat + bad comment = off with his head’. They’re not seeing a distinguished research scientist. They’re not seeing a giant of biology. They’re not seeing somebody who’s spent hours and hours in the lab alone suffering for their art. Or someone who's supervised, collaborated with and inspired dozens of PhD students, post doctoral students and investigators and added to the pool of human knowledge in a monumental way.

And what about everyone in the erroneously named ‘#distractinglysexy’ response? (His comments were about colleagues falling in love in the lab, and had nothing to do with how sexy they were.) Their responses brought a smile to my face, but are these fellow scientists going to turn their back on him too?

If they have any appreciation for the perseverance required to win a Nobel Prize, becoming a member of the Royal Society and his current work, they should sign the petition calling for him to be reinstated rather than removed. I hardly think his comments “threaten the civil liberties and credibility of every woman” as one of these silly petitions suggests. Sir Tim’s behaviour suggests he does quite the contrary. Not only did he leave the lab to help set up the European Research Council, he sat on the board that made huge strides towards funding, awarding and promoting women in science. But, again, nobody seems to care about this.

He didn't hurt any individual. There were no personal attacks. Throughout his life, he has supported women in science – as the testimonials from former colleagues and students have shown. I’m not defending his comment. It’s not exactly a great stride towards gender equality, but neither is putting his head on a spike. I care about women doing science.

I think we should do everything we can to promote women pursuing science as a career. But as we get an increasing number of women scaling the tree of knowledge and adding to its fruit, I hope they don’t lose faith in research. Because not only will they have had to overcome the gender gap, but they will be faced by a far more demoralising reality – that the wider public won’t actually give a damn, as one Nobel laureate found out last week.


21-Jun-15, 00:40
Avatar for Phormulater
posted about 5 years ago
I'm curious to know what your responses are. What do you think of what happened to the Prof? Do you have any similar? Thanks for reading!
21-Jun-15, 08:40
Avatar for TreeofLife
posted about 5 years ago
I think what he said was untrue, inappropriate, and pretty dumb. I know some people think he has the right to say and think what he likes, but I think he is in a position of authority and should be more careful. I don't think he should have been removed from UCL though. A simple apology would have sufficed, although he wasn't actually sorry though was he? He stuck to what he said and said he was just being honest.
21-Jun-15, 08:46
Avatar for KimWipes
posted about 5 years ago
I agree. Unfortunately the political correctness and leave no kids behind culture is distroying freedom of expression in our society. I do not agree with what he said, it is stupid but I can laugh at it and forget about it 5 minutes later and then focus on what he is scientifically going to say. After all he is a scientist not a politician and I respect him fot that. That is why I dislike these role-model games that take places at the universities these days.
21-Jun-15, 08:55
edited about 1 minute later
Avatar for KimWipes
posted about 5 years ago
Quote From TreeofLife:
...but I think he is in a position of authority and should be more careful. .........although he wasn't actually sorry though was he? .

The thing is that science shall not be treated as a religion with people having a position of authority... He is a scientist like many of us that was lucky enough to discover something new and much luckier than the rest of us because an authoritive body of arsitocrats have decided to give him a medal...

Also, I think an honest stupid comment of what someone actually thinks, it much more respectable that a million dishonest apologies that you can hear them very often these days....
21-Jun-15, 09:02
edited about 28 seconds later
Avatar for Mathcomp
posted about 5 years ago
>>> That particular episode has been viewed 2,500 times since being put up in 2010. In contrast, the 1:15 min video of women in ‘#distractinglysexy’ poses in response to his comments notched up 15,000 views in two days. Exactly.

This might not be pleasant but that's how we are. We are not robots. when things are not related to our field, then we get more interested if they are easier to understand and have more exciting stories to share.

>>>>It appears the public doesn’t appreciate or acknowledge scientific research.

You can also conclude public respect science so much. If it was me who made those comments, as a simple PhD student, no one would care. Nor they would care if it was Simon Cowell (Even if it would go viral). But Scientists are the most trustable people on the planet. Even if they are not as heard but people have more faith in what they say.

I'm by no means saying what happened afterwards was fair on him or the society benefits from it eventually. I'm just saying the behaviour and comments of famous and respectable people are under microscope and no one can help it.

Although scientists are trusted by public, I agree with you, they do not receive the acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve.
I wonder if there is something we can do about it or it is what it is!
16-May-18, 01:25
by eric666
edited about 9 hours later
Avatar for eric666
posted about 2 years ago
Brilliant!!! Loved it! I have been a dedicated visitor to this site. being an academic, it really motivates me up... I've been several times, but nothing like this...
16-May-18, 13:38
edited about 13 seconds later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 2 years ago
No idea why this has resurfaced but I have to say I don't know which type pf person I loathe most:

a) Idiots like this academic who spout these crap "jokes".


b) those insufferable PC advocates who seek to control and dictate what people think and say, making endless shrill and tedious demands for absolutely meaningless public apologies in the mistaken belief that they are somehow making a difference to genuine discrimination out there when in fact they are simply making things much worse for real victims. All this shrieking for attention makes it very hard to hear the real victims who need our help.


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