Tweeters Celebrate Swift, Steep Tumble of Tim Hunt

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Tim Hunt

Credit: TEDxLancasterU on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Sir Tim Hunt talks at the TEDxLancasterU 2015 Conference.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Scientists and science watchers were firing off celebratory tweets Thursday in reaction to the news that Nobel laureate Tim Hunt had resigned from his position at a U.K. university after making derisive comments about women in science.

Hunt held an honorary professorship at University College London.

His problems started during a speech at the World Conference for Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this week. After saying he had a reputation for being a chauvinist, he 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." For this reason, The Guardian, reported he said he supports single sex labs.

Swift Reaction

Connie St. Louise, director of science journalism at Hunt’s former employer, told The Guardian that no one in the 100 person audience was laughing. Instead, she immediately tweeted his comments and added,
" . . . Really does this Nobel laureate think this is Victorian times???"

Hunt responded quickly by going on BBC Radio 4’s Today show on Wednesday, June 10. He said his comments were "intended as light-hearted, ironic" but had been "interpreted deadly seriously by my audience." He admitted, however, that he did mean the part about having trouble with romantic entanglements in his workplace. "It is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field . . . I’m really, really sorry I caused any offense, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually."

Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at the University College London, was less harsh than others in commenting about the incident on the BBC on Wednesday. "I think it was clear he was trying to be funny. But people will interpret his comments as having a kernel of truth underneath. And as a Nobel laureate, I know he’s a human being, but he does have some sort of responsibility as a role model and as an ambassador for the profession."

That same day, several other female scientists were more scorching.

Male Scientists Also React

Some male scientists also expressed disappointment.

On Wednesday, the chief executive of the British Science Association, Imran Khan, told the BBC that Hunt’s comments were "careless." "Sadly, dealing with sexism and other forms of discrimination are a daily reality for many people, and I imagine it’s hard to find Sir Tim’s comments funny if you’ve been held back by systemic bias for years – whether those remarks were intended as a joke or not."

The Royal Society, a prestigious science organization in Britain that inducted Hunt as Fellow in 1991, tweeted on Wednesday:

Hunt’s "joke" may have failed so overwhelmingly because of the low numbers of women in science and math academic positions. Only 13 percent of people working in STEM in Britain are women, according to The Washington Post. Nearly 90 percent of full-time professors of science are men. In comparison, only 1-in-4 American women hold science doctorates.

The comments provide a sequel to an episode notorious within women’s rights circles, when former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, in 2005, made comments that, in his resignation the following year, he said he regretted.

In that episode, Summers suggested that men were naturally better than women at science and math. At the time, a found a silver lining, saying comments like these may actually spark investigation into the scant amount of women in science and math and inspire more to join those fields.

Hunt is 72 and won a Nobel Prize for his work in cell division in 2001.

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