What the Tim Hunt brouhaha shows about how junior and senior academic voices are heard

Pronouncements even from Nobel laureates should not be accepted as if from on high. Sara Stasi, CC BY-NC

Sexist comments recently made by Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt have been the subject of a heated and lengthy debate, including whether the quotes have been taken out of context. Of course, it’s the content of what he said that’s fueled much of the controversy. All the hoopla is representative of concerns that scientists have generally about the structure of science.

But questions have also arisen about how the debate has played out, with senior scientists expressing their views in mainstream media and junior scientists taking to social media. The two camps have essentially talked past each other.

As a researcher in the early stages of my career, I have seen this unconstructive dynamic play out repeatedly in discussions over how we should carry out and communicate our science now and in the future. When discussions are inclusive, all parties feel able to reach constructive conclusions. When we aren’t communicating directly, we have little chance of addressing important issues that need to be resolved.

A lot of dudes on the Nobel stage (2013). Reuters / TT News Agency

Science has a respect problem

The outrage against Tim Hunt’s words has not arisen just because of one isolated incident. Rather, it’s part of wider frustration with the culture of science and the explicit bias that female and transgender scientists face.

Over the course of the last year, references to younger scientists as “riff-raff” by the president of a scientific society; peer review requests to add male authors; advice to younger female scientists to take inappropriate behavior from male superiors “with good humor”; and further perspectives on working long hours while leaving parenting to wives have reinforced a culture in science in which young female scientists still face much adversity. The academic journal Science has also come under fire for reinforcing harmful sexist stereotypes.

The firestorm around Hunt’s comments is therefore not simply a reaction to what was said, but to a perception that his comments reflect the general attitudes of established researchers toward women in science. Implicit bias against women in science is an acknowledged problem, and any apparent reinforcement of explicit bias adds to frustration within the community.

Power imbalance and unproductive conversation

There has been very little actual constructive discussion among the academic community about the issues that have been raised.

The original backlash arose via social media, predominantly from younger scientists and junior faculty throughout the scientific community. The mainstream media prominently picked up subsequent calls by eight other male Nobel laureates to protect Tim Hunt’s academic freedom. These stories tended to be particularly dismissive of the social media discussion, for instance, using the term “lynch mob”.

Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, discusses the role of social media in such cases of public shaming. It makes the argument that in these instances, the outrage stems from an imbalance of power.

The power of junior scientists to have a voice in discussions about the structure of science is limited compared to that of senior influential academics. Senior scientists have greater representation in discussions about concerns regarding the structure and efficiency of science. This disparity has increasingly driven the junior scientific community to raise its voice to be heard via institutional associations such as graduate student societies and postdoctoral associations, and national groups such as the National Postdoctoral Association and Future of Research meetings.

It is unproductive for the discussion to be played out publicly in isolated venues. And when language such as “lynch mob” or “a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness” is used, it publicly dismisses real concerns by reinforcing the imbalances in the debate’s power dynamic.

The lack of a venue for an open and free debate on the issues has resulted in a long and protracted discussion across many avenues, with a dearth of actual discussion and instead the expression of opinion. What has suffered is the public’s perception of science and how it relates to women.

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt got into hot water for his public comments precisely because his position imbued them with authority. Paloma Baytelman, CC BY-SA

For good or ill, esteemed scientists speak with authority

Irrespective of the debate over what Tim Hunt said and meant or didn’t mean, his words have been taken quite literally as scientific observation because of the status that he is granted as a Nobel laureate. Boris Johnson, UK member of Parliament and mayor of London, wrote that Tim Hunt was merely making an observation as a scientist. However, these observations, extended to science as a whole, were from a subjective opinion and were not scientific. It is for this reason that the pulpit senior academics and Nobel laureates can be given must be used with great care.

So where do we go from here?

One hope, of course, is that this discussion leads to practical ways to advocate for women in science.

But we should also use this moment to take stock of the dangers of scientists at different career stages not communicating with each other, instead railing against each other without engaging.

In discussing the freedom that Tim Hunt should have to speak, the ability of younger faculty to speak freely also needs attention. Early career researchers are currently watching to see just how political scientists can be before reaching tenured positions; there’s a lot of nervousness about speaking your mind but paying the price by not advancing in your field.

Today’s media landscape feels like it is designed to have people yelling past each other. We need to encourage academics to talk to each other across all levels. Hopefully science as a whole can advance toward this goal via steps such as the Rescuing Biomedical Research initiative, which aims to bring all voices to the table for a productive conversation about the future of science.