Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt apologises over ‘trouble with girls’ remarks

A Nobel Prize-winning fellow of the Royal Society has apologised after saying he was in favour of single sex laboratories.

June 10, 2015
Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize, Nobel Laureate
Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt

Speaking at an event in South Korea for science journalists, Sir Tim Hunt said that “girls” fall in love with men while working in laboratories and cry when they are criticised, according to a post on Twitter.

The entry, posted by Connie St Louis, a senior lecturer in journalism at City University London, described what Sir Tim said at a lunch event on Monday ahead of the opening of the World Conference of Science Journalists.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he reportedly said at the event in Seoul. “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.”

“I’m in favour of single-sex labs,” he added.

In her post Ms St Louis added that Sir Tim said he had a reputation as a male chauvinist but that he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women".

Sir Tim apologised for his comments on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, saying that he intended his remarks to be humorous. “I'm really really sorry that I caused any offence, that's awful. I just meant to be honest, actually,” he said.

He added: "I did mean the part about having trouble with girls, I mean it is true that I have fallen in love with people in the lab and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me.”

"It's very disruptive to science,” he said.

About 100 people had been invited to the lunch, hosted by the president of the board of the WCSJ, as part of the biennial conference. It was sponsored by the Korean Female Scientists and Engineers group.

Ms St Louis said that the event was “utterly ruined” by the “sexist speaker” and asked, “Why are the British so embarrassing abroad?”

“Really does this Nobel Laureate think we are still in Victorian Times?” she asked in her Twitter post.

She told Times Higher Education that his comments had been verified by a number of other journalists who attended the lunch.

The Royal Society initially responded on Twitter by saying that it “is committed to a diverse science workforce” and that Sir Tim’s comments did not reflect its views. The tweet included a link to a web page about diversity at the Royal Society.

It later released a statement that said it has “acted to distance itself from the reported comments by Sir Tim Hunt FRS about women in science”.

“Sir Tim Hunt was speaking as an individual and his reported comments in no way reflect the views of the Royal Society,” it said.

“The Royal Society believes that in order to achieve everything that it can, science needs to make the best use of the research capabilities of the entire population. Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the Society is committed to helping to put this right,” it added.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the Royal Society, called for the organisation to debar Sir Tim from any committees that make decisions about fellowships, appointments, promotions and policy.

“I have no doubt that, nice guy as everyone confirms he is, he does his best not to be overtly prejudiced, but he clearly has a view of women that just makes him inappropriate in these roles,” she said.

“If this [banning him from committee] were done, and a public statement issued to that effect by the Royal Society, this would demonstrate their seriousness about diversity,” she added.

Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, said that Sir Tim appeared to be talking about his “personal problems relating to women”. “I have never had a student (male or female, straight or gay) cry when their research was criticised. Maybe it has something to do with the way you criticise,” she said.

Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, added that he was “frustrated” to see the efforts of Sir Tim in promoting science to young people, through his involvement in the association's Young Scientists of the Year competition, “undone by careless statements like these”.

Sir Tim became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1991 and he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Sir Paul Nurse and US researcher Lee Hartwell.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (1)

What he said was wrong, in fact. It should be of no more consequence than saying the world is flat. His comments tell us about a 72 year old man, they do not reflect today's science culture. Whilst there is nothing to be complacent about, there is much to change and we all have to do the very important work to the goal of an inclusive culture, we can safely treat these remarks with the contempt they deserve and quickly back to the real job.

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