Monday, June 15, 2015

The Tim Hunt sleight of hand

The internet has been all atwitter about the blatantly sexist remarks made by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt earlier this week, at a women in scientist event in Korea.  These remarks have been roundly ridiculed, as is appropriate for such stupidity from such an influential scientist.  A few days later, after a half-assed apology, Professor Hunt resigned. 

This is unfortunate.  His resignation allows his university, not to mention the rest of academia, to “shoot the messenger” and use him as a scapegoat to ignore the structural problems that allow academia to shelter and perpetuate sexist behaviour in the first place. It is like treating cholera with doxycycline while ignoring the sewage.
Ideally, his remarks, which were basically an admission of sexual harassment and/or bullying, should have triggered the standard investigative processes at his universities.  If, in fact, he has been hiring in a gender-biased manner, or taking sexual advantage of starry-eyed underlings, or making his employees cry, then he should be dealt with using the appropriate channels.  By resigning in haste, it means that we have no way of gauging the efficacy of the university grievance policies, and it gives his victims no means of redress or compensation.
I have mentioned many times the depreofessionalization ofscience, and the attendant social problems that result.  However, the flip side of scientific research getting outsourced from the corporate world to academia is that it requires academia to get more professional.  This is especially true in those areas where commercial research is being done.  However, there has been a resistance from academia to adopt professional attitudes and work practices along with this work.  And this is one of the problems that allows sexist and racist hiring practices and work environments to persist in the ivory tower while private and public sector workplaces are trying to reduce them.
In all types of workplaces, people do fall in love.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and People hopefully learn to work out how to balance their personal and professional lives before their 72nd birthday.  But whether one believes the appropriate waiting time between leaving supervision and calling should be measured on the second hand or by the orbit of Mars, the admission of a senior researcher of committing damaging and unprofessional behaviour should not prompt knee-jerk resignation.  This just deflects attention from the institutional structures that either address or cover up these sorts of problems.  The issue is not Professor Hunt’s twinfamy; it is the inability of academic institutions to protect their junior personnel.


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