Being human is good for science

June 18, 2015

Sir Tim Hunt made some spectacularly inept remarks about women in science, which are rightly being thoroughly ridiculed. He taught me as an undergraduate, and I have run into him over the years since in various forums; and in my experience he is not sexist. So maybe it is worth thinking a bit more deeply about what he said. On both the points he made, I think that he is wrong (please don’t cry, Tim).

First, he argued that romantic relationships in the lab (which are not always heterosexual) are a distraction, and thus damaging to science. This plays to the curious idea that the best scientists are robots. Progress in science depends on creativity, imagination, inspiration, serendipity, obsession, distraction and all the things that make us human. The best science happens in precisely the environments where people fall in and out of love. You can’t have one without the other.

Second, he argued that women take criticism too personally, and that this is obstructive to the pursuit of truth. I agree that the best and most exciting discussions in science occur when all ideas get fully examined from every angle. I also agree that taking criticism of ideas personally prevents such discussions from happening. However, in my experience, men are on average much worse offenders than women on this count. Men who can’t separate their ideas from their egos do something considerably more obstructive than bursting into tears. They doggedly argue for more and more extreme versions of their idea long after it has been found to be totally untenable. They don’t even listen to the criticism. This is far more stifling to progress than tears.

We all have our insecurities. They are also part of being human, which is necessary for being a good scientist. We all respond to our insecurities in different ways. We need to build a research culture that supports and nurtures diversity, because that’s where the best ideas are born.

Ottoline Leyser
Director and professor of plant development
Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge

What Hunt said was wrong. It should be of no more consequence than saying that the world is flat. His comments tell us about a 72-year-old man; they do not reflect today’s science culture. While there is nothing to be complacent about and much to change, we can safely treat these remarks with the contempt they deserve and quickly get back to the real job.

Jim Sta

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