No­bel lau­re­ate in ‘girls’ trou­ble

A Bri­tish bio­chemist quits his col­lege post and apol­o­gizes for his ‘hon­est’ com­ments.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Christina Boyle Boyle is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

LON­DON — One of the world’s most dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists re­signed from his post at a top Bri­tish uni­ver­sity on Thurs­day af­ter his com­ment that the pres­ence of “girls” in the lab leads to ro­mance and tears.

No­bel lau­re­ate Tim Hunt stepped down as an hon­orary pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don af­ter his com­ments to se­nior fe­male sci­en­tists and jour­nal­ists sparked a firestorm of con­dem­na­tion.

“Let me tell you about my trou­ble with girls,” Hunt said at the World Con­fer­ence of Science Jour­nal­ists in South Korea on Tues­day, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who were present.

“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.”

The 72-year-old Bri­tish bio­chemist also voiced sup­port for gen­der-seg­re­gated lab­o­ra­to­ries be­fore adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women.”

His com­ments were first posted to Twit­ter by Con­nie St Louis, direc­tor of the science jour­nal­ism pro­gram at City Uni­ver­sity Lon­don, who was at the con­fer­ence.

“Does this No­bel lau­re­ate think we are still in Vic­to­rian times?” she wrote.

Hunt told the BBC af­ter his com­ments went vi­ral that he was deeply sorry if they caused of­fense.

He said it was stupid to make such state­ments in the pres­ence of so many jour­nal­ists. He said the re­marks were in­tended “as a light­hearted, ironic com­ment” but had been taken se­ri­ously by his au­di­ence.

But in­stead of re­tract­ing his re­marks, Hunt said he “just meant to be hon­est, ac­tu­ally.”

“I did mean the part about hav­ing trou­ble with girls,” he said. “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 found that th­ese emo­tional en­tan­gle­ments made life very dif­fi­cult.”

There has been a long­stand­ing prob­lem try­ing to re­cruit women into science, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing in­dus­tries in many na­tions, in­clud­ing Bri­tain. Re­search by the ad­vo­cacy group Wise, which cam­paigns on the is­sue, found that women make up half of the Bri­tish work­force but only about one­fifth of jobs in those sec­tors.

Some fe­male sci­en­tists re­acted by post­ing pho­tos of them­selves in head-to-toe baggy white lab suits along­side the hash­tag #dis­tract­ingl­y­sexy on Twit­ter.

Hunt’s com­ments were also widely con­demned by inf lu­en­tial or­ga­ni­za­tions with which he was af­fil­i­ated. They sug­gested the re­marks did a huge dis­ser­vice to gen­der equal­ity.

In a state­ment con­firm­ing Hunt’s res­ig­na­tion, Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don said, “UCL was the first uni­ver­sity in Eng­land to ad­mit women stu­dents on equal terms to men, and the uni­ver­sity be­lieves that this out­come is com­pat­i­ble with our com­mit­ment to gen­der equal­ity.”

Hunt, a grad­u­ate of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity, also re­signed from the Royal So­ci­ety, where he was elected a fel­low in 1991 for the Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences Awards Com­mit­tee.

The Royal So­ci­ety called his com­ments “so dis­ap­point­ing ” and said it “be­lieves that too many tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als do not ful­fill their sci­en­tific po­ten­tial be­cause of is­sues such as gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the so­ci­ety is com­mit­ted to help­ing to put this right.”

Hunt was awarded the No­bel Prize in phys­i­ol­ogy or medicine in 2001 with Le­land Hartwell and Paul Nurse for their dis­cov­ery of pro­tein mol­e­cules that con­trol the di­vi­sion of cells, and has been awarded a string of ac­co­lades through­out his ca­reer.

He be­came a for­eign as­so­ciate of the U.S. Na­tional Academy of Sciences in 1991 and was knighted by Queen El­iz­a­beth II in 2006.

C. Segesvari AFP/Getty Images

TIM HUNT said of fe­male sci­en­tists in the lab, “When you crit­i­cize them, they cry.”

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