Tuesday 23 June 2015

Open mouth, insert foot

More on the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. Sir Tim Hunt, BA, PhD (Cantab.), FRS, was born in 1943 and won 1/3 of the 2001 Nobel Prize for his discovery of cyclins.  These are proteins that regulate the cell cycle, determining whether cells will divide or not. Uncontrolled cell division is an adequate definition of cancer which is a lurking worry for straight white males SWM of sufficient age like me and Sir Tim.  His research had implications for the cure of some cancers and so I daresay he deserved his Nobel.  The trouble winning with the Nobel is that people ever after will listen to what you say; even if you don't have any special qualification to speak on the matter. For example, Sir John Sulston FRS, Nobel 2002 for his work on genome sequencing and development in nematode worms, is now invited to bang on about human population growth and planetary burden because that's what he cares about. I have a position on that too, but nobody is flying me to New Zealand to hear about it.

Earlier this month, Dr Hunt was invited to speak at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul.  In the course of his speech 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 criticise them, they cry."  Noting the sixth ("my") word in that statement it could be taken as a wry comment about a life-time's bemusement about the opposite sex OR it could be taken as a gross example of casual and institutional sexism by a straight white male who had used his position of implicit power to bully young women. Guess which tack the media took?  Now it is true that bullying happens in scientific laboratories and I know one SWM lab-head who doesn't feel that a one-to-one meeting with his female students has been productive unless somebody cries. But because this is not done in a public forum in front of a roomful of journalists, his behaviour is condoned by all his colleagues. The nearest Hunt came to having his remarks condoned was a patronising "poor old buffer, he grew up when men didn't know any better".

Far too many organisations fell over themselves in calling for Hunt's head.  He had to resign from positions at University College London UCL and  the European Research Council ERC, Nature bravely wrote an anonymous editorial calling Hunt's comments "jaw-dropping and belittling sentiments about women in the laboratory". OTOH, another press release from the ERC seems to imply that they are behind him and praise his work on gender balance. The Royal Society didn't (yet) revoke his fellowship and there is no mechanism for clawing back a Nobel Prize. The Times Higher Education Supplement THE employed some withering irony to expose the hypocrisy of UCL's support of women in science by comparing Hunt's case to that of fellow Professor and Serial-Sperm-Donor Gennadij Raivich who appears to be still on the UCL books after conviction for sexual assault. Satire is, in my book, a more elegant and ultimately more painful weapon than being compelled to fall on one's sword.

By coincidence, I was on youtube a few days ago and came across a remarkable explanation of inertia by Walter Lewin, a Dutch born holocaust survivor, who lectured at MIT.  He was so good at his job that, about the time I started bloggin', he launched a massive open online course MOOC called “Afraid of physics?” with the support and approval of MIT. These MOOCs gave access to science for thousands of people who could never afford to go to MIT, but they also give scientists access to thousands of e-students. Lewin was found to have been asking some of these foreign students for pictures of themselves with their white-coats and the rest of their kit off.  MIT decided he had “engaged in online sexual harassment in violation of MIT policies” and sacked him . . . and removed his on-line material. The latter response seems peculiarly medieval, a bit like burning the books of sinners lest they contaminate the souls of the faithful.  As Lara Dungan [below] said about the Hunt case: how can someone so smart behave so dense.

I didn't behave too well 20+ years ago when called upon to take an ethical position on the sins of Carleton Gajdusek, which were graver than Hunt's.

But satire wins!  Under the hashtag distractinglysexy, dozens of women in science shared pictures of themselves with their arm up a cow's rectum, invisible in bright orange hazmat suits, shovelling contaminated sludge and hugging their centrifuges. Woot!  The Saturday before last on the wireless Futureproof had coverage of the whole sorry Hunt story. Two comments seemed cogent. Presenter Lara Dungan asked a rhetorical "I thought these Nobellists were smart, how could Hunt be so stupid?" [I paraphrase].  A listener acknowledged that women [in science] in our culture might have a tendency to cry more often than men but Hunt, and everyone, should just get over it.  A tendency to weep doesn't make you less able to follow a lab protocol, to take criticism, to have creative ideas, to work all the hours that god sends or to take out the trash. I like that response a lot, it says that difference is okay, not better not worse, just different. As Caitlin Moran said last year, the more different approaches we have, the more likely we were to find a solution to the worrying times ahead.

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