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Source: BBC Radio 4: Today Programme
URL: http://www.dcscience.net/Today-Hunt-StLouis-Rohn, 20100615.mp3
Date: 10/06/2015
Event: Connie St. Louis and Jennifer Rohn discuss Sir Tim Hunt
Credit: BBC Radio 4

  • Sir Tim Hunt: Former Honorary Professor, UCL Faculty of Life Sciences
  • Sarah Montague: Presenter, BBC Radio 4 Today programme
  • Dr. Jennifer Rohn: Cell biologist, University College London
  • Connie St. Louis: Lecturer in science journalism, City University


Sarah Montague: There are three problems with having women in the laboratory - according to the Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt - you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. That's what he told a conference of senior women scientists and journalists in South Korea. And it didn't go down well terribly well. We caught up with Sir Tim, a few hours ago, as he was about to board a plane back to the UK. He told us his comments had been intended as a joke, but that he stood by some of what he said.

Sir Tim Hunt: I did mean the part about having - having trouble with girls. I mean, it is true that people - I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it's very disruptive to the science. Um, because it's terribly important that in the lab, people are, sort of, on a level playing field. And I found that, um, you know, these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I mean, I'm really, really sorry that I caused any offence - that's awful. I certainly didn't mean - I just meant to be honest, actually.

Sarah Montague: Well, it's a subject we'll return to, later in the programme - we'll be speaking to one of his colleagues and to a scientist who was at that speech.

* * *


Sarah Montague: There are three problems with having women in the laboratory - according to the Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt - you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. That's what he told female science journalists at the World Conference of Science in South Korea. When it didn't go down terribly well, he admitted that he was a "chauvinist pig". It's caused a bit of a storm, online. Sir Tim Hunt told us his comments had been intended to be humorous.

Sir Tim Hunt: This was a lunch for women journalists and particularly women scientists and engineers, actually. And I was asked, at short notice, to say a few words afterwards. And I thought it was ironic that I came after three women, who very nicely thanked the organisers for the lunch. And I said it was odd that they - they'd asked a man to make any comments. And I'm really sorry that I said what I said - it was a very stupid thing to do, in the presence of all those journalists. And what was intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. But what I said was quite accurately reported.

It's terribly important that you, um, can criticise people's ideas without criticising them. And if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from, you know, getting at the absolute truth - I mean, what - science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science. I mean, I'm really, really sorry that I caused any offence - that's awful. I certainly didn't mean - I just meant to be honest, actually.

Sarah Montague: Sir Tim, there, before he got on a plane, on his way back to the UK. Well, Connie St. Louis is a lecturer in science journalism at City University. She was at the conference, she joins us from Seoul, now. And we're joined here in the studio by Dr. Jennifer Rohn, who's a cell biologist at University College London, where Sir Tim has an honorary position - she's also chair and founder of Science is Vital, which is a grass-roots organisation supporting science, here. Good morning to you both.

Jennifer Rohn: Good morning.

Connie St. Louis: Good morning.

Sarah Montague: Connie St. Louis, when he said this - I mean, you heard him, you were there - what was the reaction in the room?

Connie St. Louis: Well, there was a deathly silence, it was - who stands up and says "I hope the women have prepared the lunch"? "I'm a male chauvinist pig". And at that point, you'd think he would get some social cues to say "Stop", because nobody was laughing. His guests had already told him not to go down this ha-ha route, and these guys had been incredibly generous and thoughtful and inclusive by asking him to make comments at their lunch. And, um, he just carried on, digging this enormous hole, into which he fell and couldn't get himself back out. And I kept thinking: he's going to stop - please, he's going to stop, and he's British, and this is just too awful and these guys are incredibly upset.

And so this - after he'd finished, there was this deathly, deathly silence. And um, a lot of my colleagues sat down and were taking notes, because they just couldn't believe, in this day and age, that somebody would be prepared to stand up and be so crass, so rude in a different culture, and actually to be so openly sexist as well.

Sarah Montague: He says it was humorous, it was meant to be humorous and he - I think he was, as I understand it, making the argument for single-sex laboratories.

Connie St. Louis: So he says he was being humorous and that's fine, I - you can try and be funny but actually you should take your cues from the audience and realise that nobody thinks you're being funny. It wasn't funny, what he was saying, at all. You know, what he was saying is that women should be separated from men in the laboratory. He was saying that when feedback is given to women they cry all the time. Um, then there's always complications about love - that's nonsense, it's so simplistic that it hardly bears worth thinking about.

Sarah Montague: Let me -

Connie St. Louis: And also -

Sarah Montague: Sorry, do go on.

Connie St. Louis: And also this idea that you have single-sex laboratories, in this day and age. And there are two things I think that worked against him even more was the context of our conference, which is about science journalism, not science, and we have - we invite a few scientists, um, we were launching a report later, um, talking about -

Sarah Montague: Let -

Connie St. Louis: - sexism in science and in science journalism.

Sarah Montague: Let me bring in Dr. Jennifer Rohn, because you know him, I think, don't you?

Jennifer Rohn: Yes, a little bit.

Sarah Montague: What's your reaction to what he said? I mean, is it - is it in keeping?

Jennifer Rohn: Well, I was very disappointed. I think - I mean, I think it was clear he was trying to be funny but people will interpret his comments as having a kernel of truth underneath. And it doesn't help that a lot of men in that generation - not a lot, let's say a few - do hold these attitudes.

Sarah Montague: He's 72.

Jennifer Rohn: And they do joke, and women are not helped by that attitude. And as a Nobel laureate, I know he's a human being, but he does have some sort of responsibility as a role model and as an ambassador for the profession. And if you get up there and say things like that, even in - as a jokey sort of way, they're going to be taken out of context, they're going to be taken to heart by some young female scientists, and I think that's a real shame, because we still have a very long way to go, to get equality in the sciences.

Sarah Montague: I mean, you are young, you're much younger than him. Have you experienced bias? And -

Jennifer Rohn: Oh, of course I have. And I daresay most women have. These days, it's mostly unconscious bias, so the kind of comments that Professor Hunt made are quite rare, I mean people don't dare say things like that, even if they think them. But there's a lot of unconscious bias - things working against you, you don't get asked to be on a short list of candidates, you are - you're looked upon as inferior unconsciously, and this really holds women back.

Sarah Montague: We should just say, probably worth saying, Sir Tim Hunt, he's married to a very powerful female scientist, isn't she - I mean, she's a professor of immunology.

Jennifer Rohn: Yes, and she was a Dean of a Faculty of Life Sciences at UCL. She's, in fact, been on a lot of Women in Science panels with me, and I'm sure she doesn't approve of these comments. Um, they must have been intended as a joke, but as I say, that's no excuse.

Sarah Montague: Dr. Jennifer Rohn and Connie -

Connie St. Louis: I didn't think they were intended as a joke, at all. I'd just like to say that they - you know, he went on for at least five to seven minutes -

Jennifer Rohn: Fair point.

Connie St. Louis: - you don't go on like that.

Sarah Montague: Connie St. Louis, Dr. Jennifer Rohn, thank you both.