Dr. Tim Hunt

Dr. Tim Hunt


Howard Adelman

I am ashamed, deeply ashamed, at what is happening to our society. And by our society, I mean our global one. For the phenomenon is not local. I not only felt ashamed. I cried. I literally cried. And I could not even offer as an excuse that I have shallow tear ducts like most women.

The story is simple, but the consequences have been catastrophic for Dr. Tim Hunt, for science, for our academic institutions, and for a society that believes it upholds the principles of due process and the rule of law as well as the underlying principles governing their application. For we have allowed hysteria and mob rule to take the place of deliberation and consideration in meting out rewards and punishments.

On 9 June 2015, just one week ago, Tim Hunt was the invited speaker at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul Korea. His audience for the lunchtime address consisted of female journalists and scientists. The title of his talk was: “Creative Science – Only a Game.”. I have been unable to find a transcript of his talk on the internet. Nor have I been able to learn whether the exact title of his paper had a question at the end of the title. However, I suspect Tim Hunt was exploring the issue of the degree to which science is a field of playful creativity or simply an activity governed by rules with the results determined by skill or strength or aptitude or even luck. Whatever else games are, they are usually competitive. Play, on the other hand, is open-ended, more freeform and specifically not governed by fixed rules.

I have no idea whether this was in fact the theme of his talk, for the hullabaloo that arose from the talk came from one short paragraph. Reading that paragraph offered virtually no clue to his thesis, though an interpretation might suggest that he favoured a rule-based system of scientific discovery rather than one emphasizing the free range of the imagination. Tim Hunt’s father, Richard William Hunt, was a paleographer, an expert in the study of ancient manuscripts, and was then Keeper of the Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He may have been very rule-based given his profession. At the Infants Department of the Oxford High School for Girls where Tim Hunt was enrolled by his parents, the only thing he tells of his memory of the school is that he learned to detest, even hate games, because they were so competitive, especially games like musical chairs where I suspect he, as an early nerd, was probably the perennial loser. Thus, given his experiences before he was eight-years-old, one  inclined to believe that he favours the playful approach to scientific discovery.

This interpretation would be reinforced by his autobiographical comments on the Dragon school he attended when he left the girls school. “The Dragon was much better, much less regimented, at the same time much more playful and more serious.” This suggests he favoured a playful rather than a games approach to scientific discovery. This interpretation is reinforced by the additional evidence that when he started his scientific career in the sixties at Cambridge under the supervision of Asher Korner. Hunt always lauded Korner deservedly for encouraging a great deal of freedom for students working under his supervision in both their choices of research and their approach to a problem. Hunt was not the only one to say so. Tony Hunter, a winner of the Wolf Prize, a colleague of Tim Hunt’s at Cambridge and in the direction of research both were pursuing, also lauded Asher Korner under whom he worked before Korner moved to take up the Chair in Biology at Sussex. Hunter also commended Korner for encouraging a free play of the imagination in approaching scientific problems.

In any case, the paragraph that gave rise to a firestorm around the world was the following: “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.” (My italics) Anyone who knew anything about Tim Hunt had to recognize he was being self-referential. He met his wife, Mary Collins, an almost equally famous molecular biologist, by working beside her in a lab. Perhaps she cried when he offered her some criticism, and that opened their way to falling in love, making a lifelong happy marriage by all accounts and having two daughters themselves working their way up the ladder in scientific careers.

Since the brouhaha broke out, Mary Collins has steadfastly defended her husband and reprimanded the despicable and cowardly academic and research institutions to which she has devoted her life. In the series, Methods in Molecular Biology, she authored the eighth volume, Practical Molecular Virology – Viral Vectors for Gene Expression. The issue under discussion is a viral vector, but not of the expression of genes but of a hysterical culture gone mad. Mary has occupied even more esteemed positions than her Nobel-Prize-winning husband. She has been a Professor of Immunology at the Division of Infection and Immunity at University College, London, the head of the Division of Advanced Therapies at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, and the Director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Medical Molecular Virology. She is an innovative scientist in her own right with a tremendous record of research in cell biology undertaking pioneering work on how to introduce new genes into cells, work that promises to be so crucial to treating inherited conditions leading to cancers as well as in the actual treatment of those cancers.

It is too bad these two great scientists had not dedicated a bit of time to understanding the new rapidly spreading viruses on the new media that create such panic and chaos in the social conduct of human beings. But more on this later.

Notice the following about that paragraph that led to the hysteria. First, Tim Hunt was making a personal reference. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls…” In the speech, at least, he did not seem to be proposing a generalization about the interaction of men and women in labs. Secondly, there is absolutely no implication from that one paragraph that he favoured sexually segregated labs let alone inhibiting women from pursuing scientific careers, hardly likely given the career path of his wife and two daughters. Third, though it may perhaps be difficult to detect in print and perhaps even among a cosmopolitan audience unfamiliar with what passes for humour at Oxford, Tim Hunt was steeped in a particular form of humour characteristic of Oxford but, coming from Cambridge, it was not an art he ever mastered. The humour is often self-deferential, sharp and usually at the expense of either the person telling the joke or a close colleague in which dissing one another in clever and subtle ways becomes the order of the day.

However, assuming the comment was offered in humour (he claimed it was meant to be jocular and ironic), it was an absolutely dumb joke to present in that forum unfamiliar with the nuances of Oxford college humour. The late Professor Jerry Cohen at Oxford, a Canadian and McGill grad, who was the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College from 1985 to 2008, was deserving of even more fame as the greatest raconteur in imitating and making fun of that sense of humour. There have been actual scientific surveys about humour at Oxford. Over 60% of scholars there, both male and female, value humour as the most important trait in understanding an individual’s character. My sense in having read about Tim Hunt is that he was as bad at the competitive spirit of joke-telling at Oxford as he was in playing musical chairs as a seven-year-old at the Oxford School for Girls. Humour is used there to ease tension in relations as well as to express oneself in this competition of wit and sharp barbs.

Perhaps the stress on what I often regard as bad humour – I am not an Oxford grad; my eldest son earned his PhD there so I will have to check with him – arises from the fact that Oxford is an old university deeply steeped in traditions going back to the Middle Ages and the manuscripts Tim’s father so carefully preserved. For in those manuscripts, as in Shakespearean plays, the English had inherited the inane idea from the Greek philosophers that governed the understanding of the body for almost two thousand years, in spite of much Egyptian evidence to the contrary, that humour was a cardinal fluid, one of four – phlegm (blood), choler (yellow bile) and black bile (melancholia), being the other three – governing human behaviour and dispositions. The four humours gave an individual his or her personality dependent on the ratios of each fluid in the body.

Based on medieval theory, Tim Hunt lacked sufficient humour fluid in his body.

Nevertheless, quite aside from his apparent indiscretion and insensitivity to context, anyone who knew just a little about Tim Hunt had to know that he was not in favour of banning women from molecular biology labs in particular and science in general. He did not advocate sexual separation, even as he put his foot further in his mouth in BBC interviews afterwards when trying to explain his views. He lacked a high profile public relations agency to explain to him that once the ire of the mob has been aroused, do not try to explain. Do not try to equivocate. Just say you are sorry in the most sincere manner possible and do so as soon as possible after committing what is interpreted as a grave social offense. Then withdraw from the battle, otherwise one is bound to leave one’s own guts strewn all over the field of public battle, especially one as averse to fights and conflicts and competition as Tim was and is. Earlier this morning, the hosts of the lunch, the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations (KOFWST), had the good graces simply to ask for Tim Hunt’s apology and immediately accepted it.

If only that had ended the matter. If only the British and European institutions had not acted with such unseemly haste in tarring and feathering Tim Hunt. If… if.

Contrast the way General and Chief of Staff Tom Lawson handled his controversy when he opined in an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC for The National when questioned about sexual harassment in the military. Although “the terrible issue” of military sexual harassment “disturbs the great majority of everyone in uniform,” he opined, while admitting it was a trite answer, “it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be.” Note that he was not saying that what is determines what ought to be. He explicitly opposed such a position. But in explaining sexual harassment in terms of some form of biological determinism, he stepped on the feet of all those who believe quite reasonably that it is a matter of nurture not nature, and that the problem lay in institutions which encouraged or even merely tolerated such behaviour instead of ensuring zero tolerance through education and punishments.

Lawson’s statement was far worse than Tim Hunt’s. It was not made as a joke. Lawson generalized instead of being self-referential. And Lawson occupied a supreme position of authority in the Canadian armed forces and was directly responsible for the elimination of sexual harassment in those forces. If he accepted a biological determinism in a war against social norms that condemned such behaviour, his false consciousness might make it very difficult for him to perform his job. He was wise enough, or was in a position to have cracker-jack public relations advice, to immediately back down and apologize. So instead of the stripping and tar and feathering of Tim Hunt, I suspect Lawson will be allowed, even if shamefacedly, to keep his position and retire in good grace. Tim Hunt was stripped of all of his positions even though in not one of them did he any longer have any authority to make decisions about who did or did not work in labs.

In the case of Tim Hunt, a bit of knowledge – not very much – would have clarified that such a hardnosed misogynist position did not characterize Tim Hunt’s life or experiences, let alone his convictions and positions he advocated. After all, aside from meeting and working with his wife in labs, he worked in 1979 under Joan Ruderman who taught him so much about embryology; he worked in her lab studying the translational control of maternal mRNA. In Joan’s lab, he also worked with Nancy Standart, a postdoc research student, who followed Tim Hunt to Cambridge. He gave equal credit to Nancy for establishing the first well-authenticated case of mRNAs functioning as translational controls and, subsequently, with identifying the key regulatory regions that serve translational masking. The list goes on.

There is absolutely no evidence that Hunt is either sexist or a misogynist and every evidence to refute such charges. That conclusion was based on the hue and cry based on misreading what he said and wrote. The charges forced Hunt to resign as Honorary Professor with University College, London, in the Faculty of Life Sciences, as a member of the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee, as a member of the European Research Council (ERC), all in spite of many women who had worked with him who defended Tim Hunt and his reputation. Dame Athene Donald, professor of Physics and fellow of the Royal Society, insisted that, “Hunt was always immensely supportive of the ERC’s work around gender equality.”

Let me offer a taste of a bit of the witch hunt that drove such a distinguished scientist into the wilderness and ostracism. Kate Rybczynski, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo and chair of the university’s Status of Women and Equity Committee, wrote an op-ed published in yesterday’s Toronto Star. This is the way she sarcastically began her column. “The trouble with science is all girls. I see it all the time – women swooning in the corridors of our engineering faculty flirtatiously tweaking pipette in our science labs and sobbing over keyboards in computer labs.” With such a very different form of humour, belong to burlesque rather than the ancient common rooms of Oxford, on the level of farcical hyperbole, Kate began her advocacy of literally hanging Tim Hunt’s effigy in the courtyard of college campuses.

The fact that even reading the simple extracted paragraph would not lead any individual versed in the least care in reading to interpret what he said as a generalization about women in science seems to have passed over her head – or perhaps under it. He did not say or write, “the trouble with girls in science,” but “my trouble with girls.” He did not write nor did he clearly mean that, “Hunt is essentially saying that having a woman as a colleague reduces the productivity of men to the point that companies and universities would be better off having a gender-segregated lab, or worse, hiring less qualified men and excluding more qualified female candidates.” This a totally unwarranted extraction.

Should Kate be asked to resign for writing such inanities? Not from her academic position – she may possibly be a very god psychologist – but as chair of a university committee concerned with assuring that women are treated fairly on campus? Should she be fired from that position for her inability to read and her gross misinterpretations of what is said and read and for not doing her homework? Unless, of course, she apologizes for her insult to the normal intelligence of the rest of us, let alone Jim Hunt.

The rest of the article about closing the gender gap is critical and important, and it is too bad the opening drivel of her op-ed piece undercuts any respect that should be given to such arguments. Tim Hunt has set the stage for women in biology in a remarkably generous way. Knowing this, he was invited to address women journalists and scientists in Seoul, Korea who did not know he was as awkward with Oxford traditions of humour as he was at playing musical chairs. After all, he came from Cambridge. Tim Hunt, in spite of Kate’s ill-grounded charges, has not been one who has “made science and tech a toxic environment for women,” quite aside from Margaret Wente’s argument in The Globe and Mail that such charges are empirically obsolete.

Kate’s conclusion: “It’s good he stepped down.” We may indeed need more men and women to stand up for gender equality, but gender equality means that Kate’s comments and unsubstantiated generalizations should be treated as part of the hysteria in assessing and judging others. The op-ed is, not a sufficient cause for Kate to be asked to step down, for even academics, perhaps, especially academics, should be entitled to their moments of stupidity in the sun. But they should not be joined. They should be criticized.

What is more despicable is the way esteemed institutions bent to the will of a mob and acted precipitously, without due process, without reading the full text, without a fair and reasonable inquiry into what happened, without Tim being allowed to explain himself before his peers – in summary, without a semblance of due process and without a proper day in the court of public opinion.

Cyclins and cyclin-dependent protein kinases are the key messengers in both telling cells when to turn on and serve as inhibitors telling cells to turn off in making enzymes to catalyze mitosis. Tim Hunt’s work was crucial in advancing our understanding into how such messages actually work. If only political scientists and sociologists did as well in teaching us what institutions and activities are critical in inhibiting mob hysteria and how it has worked in the past, the equivalent of preventing the runaway reproduction of cancer cells. These same institutions are needed to turn the switch on to ensure healthy reproduction of cells take place.  We clearly need to learn how and when to turn on and off the switches of public opinion and to allow a fair consideration when people slip up.

There is a lot more to learn from Tim Hunt. He has stood on the shoulders of the founders of molecular biology, such as Francis Crick, who set the standards. Crick always took great care to explain what he was thinking about. He was always careful to make sure that everyone around the table really understood. Most importantly, he always asked a myriad of questions before he inserted his own opinion. We have much to learn from these molecular biologists well beyond their enormous contributions to the advancement of their field. Instead, we allow them to be humiliated and lynched when they slip up and make a stupid joke.


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