Hunt was right to resign – Nobel laureates must set an example to their field, not bring shame

It’s been a rough two days for Hunt. Paloma Baytelman/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Should I be pleased that Sir Tim Hunt has resigned from his post as honorary professor at University College London after his unbelievable sexist remarks about women in science? He certainly has whipped up a tornado of emotions and outrage, which has spread like wildfire through the media.

Well, I am delighted that he has fallen on his now-tarnished sword but a part of me is saddened that this may mean that his views and opinions creep back into the undergrowth. And it would be a shame if he no longer had to publicly address his Victorian beliefs. He should also address whether he is well placed to continue working in academia at all. Let’s not forget that he’s still an emeritus scientist at the forthcoming Francis Crick Institute. This is a post way more significant than being an honorary professor, which is a title of recognition rather than an actual job.

So the debate must continue. It is important, because Nobel laureates have a privileged place in society that marks them out as individuals to be held in high regard, a role model for the next generation and, above all, people with the intellect to ensure that their actions are commensurate with the greatest award bestowed upon them. Hunt has said himself that he does think Nobel laureates should act as ambassadors for science.

How sad for Hunt that he has lost the credibility of the scientific community in just one day. It may have taken only a few minutes to comment “that the trouble with girls” in labs is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”. But the implications of this statement are much further reaching than his attempt “to inject humour into his lecture” – humour that shocked his audience and shattered his reputation. Humour that no one found funny.

Nobel bigotry

However Hunt is not the only Nobel laureate to have caused offence. The great scientist James Watson who worked with Francis Crick to unravel DNA was also ostracised for his public comments stating that people may like to think that all races are of equal intelligence but that those “who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”. As a result, he was suspended from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory outside New York, USA.

James Watson, fellow disgraced Nobel Laureate. EPA

Like Hunt the media outrage at Watson’s statement knew no bounds. Watson was subsequently shunned from the scientific community, losing his place on prestigious committees and opportunities to give public lectures. In his own words he became an “unperson”. In 2014, seven years after his remarks Watson put his Nobel Prize medal up for auction in his attempt to re-enter public life. Is this the same fate that awaits Hunt?

Back to the stone age?

What is particularly sad about Hunt’s comments is that they undermine a genuine appetite to address gender imbalance, particularly in the science subjects where there is a dearth of female senior academics in higher education.

The Equality Challenge Unit with its Athena Swan Charter, which gives awards to departments that are making progress on gender equality, has been a key catalyst for changing this. In the ten years since it was first launched we are at last beginning to see the sorrowful statistics gradually change. This has happened by addressing conscious and unconscious bias in attitudes and actions and addressing cultural barriers. However there is much work still to be done

This agenda somehow seems to have bypassed Hunt. Has he lost the ability to keep up with the times, stagnated or simply stopped using his enquiring mind that had previously taken him to a level that many could only aspire to?

Hunt ultimately did the right thing by resigning, sending a message that he takes public concern seriously. Whether this is enough to restore some of his reputation remains to be seen.