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Call off the Hunt – Fiona Fox on Tim Hunt

Posted in Reflections On Science on June 15th, 2015.

Fiona Fox, Director of the UK Science Media Centre, writes on her blog about the recent scandal around Nobel laureate Prof Tim Hunt’s sexist public comments at a conference. Below is an excerpt, with the full blog available here.

Fiona Fox's blog on science and the mediaCall off the hunt

Am I the only one who feels sorry for Tim Hunt? Judging from my inbox, I’m not.

I can’t help myself. I just feel uneasy when people are vilified, sacked or have their reputations trashed, in part because of a media storm. I want my villains to be really nasty and to deserve their fate. I have always felt the same. I hated the so called “Alastair Campbell rule” where MPs caught up in scandals had to be sacrificed if the media storm was still raging after ten days, even if they were totally innocent.

And nor is the first time we have seen science being as brutal as politics. I was at the British Science Association festival a few years ago when bored science journalists decided to make mischief. When the director of education at the Royal Society, Michael Reiss confirmed to a journalist that he would answer a question about creationism raised by a pupil in a science class, the journalists smelt blood. The next move was to put in a call to Richard Dawkins and other high profile atheists to ask the rhetorical question as to whether this might be a resigning matter…affirmative. Within days he was gone. I called ten people on the day of his resignation desperately hoping to hear that he was a horrible person who deserved his fate. Without exception, all told me he was the nicest man in the Royal Society and a great director for the Royal Society. He was sacked not because of what he said, not because of what he thinks, but because the media storm wouldn’t die down without this scalp.

The row over Tim Hunt feels similar. Of course what he said was ill-judged, not one bit funny and actually a bit bonkers. But within hours of the story breaking, people were queuing up to make Tim Hunt the poster boy for sexism in science. Within forty eight hours he was effectively sacked from an honorary position at UCL, the board of the European Research Council (ERC) and a Royal Society prize-giving committee.

The SMC issued comments from a long list of scientists condemning Hunt’s remarks, and set up back to back interviews with angry female scientists in despair at the crass and damaging comments. But I had questions, mainly revolving around whether or not Tim Hunt is a chauvinist. Does he actually discriminate against his female colleagues? Does he seriously propose segregated labs and has he ever tried to implement this? Does he refuse to employ young women in his lab because they might cry when he appraises their work? And critically, will removing Tim Hunt from his positions at UCL, the Royal Society and the ERC also remove a barrier to the progress of women in science and advance that cause. I asked around but none of those giving interviews or tweeting seemed be able to answer me. Worryingly for me, the question of whether this scientist deserved this global vilification seemed irrelevant.

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