Eight Nobel prizewinning scientists have rallied to the defence of Sir Tim Hunt, the British scientist who was forced to resign his honorary professorship at University College London (UCL) after making comments on the “trouble with girls” in laboratories.
Sir Andre Geim, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 2010, said Sir Tim had been “crucified” by feminist fanatics and condemned UCL for “ousting him” from his honorary post. A senior colleague of Sir Tim’s wife Professor Mary Collins also accused UCL of a “knee-jerk reaction” following a Twitter storm.
Sir Tim, who won the Nobel prize himself in 2001, said he feels “hung out to dry” after the hysterical backlash over his “joke” comment that women who work in laboratories cry when criticised and distract male colleagues by falling in love with them.
The Times newspaper contacted various Nobel laureates, eight of whom either condemned UCL’s decision or said the press reaction had been out of proportion, while only two said the college was right to remove him.
Sir Andre added: “The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.”
He warned it could take years for UCL’s reputation to recover after the debacle.
Another Nobel prizewinner, Jack Szostak of Harvard, said it was “frightening to see how one stupid comment can ignite a global firestorm of criticism,” adding: “Clearly we need to be cautious in making statements in a public venue, but perhaps sometimes we should just be ignored.”
Avram Hershko, an Israeli Nobel laureate, said the press have over-reacted to Sir Tim’s comments. “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL . . . I think that he was very unfairly treated.”
Sir Tim’s wife, Professor Mary Collins, also works at UCL as a professor of immunology. She revealed that she received a phone call from a senior figure at the institution who told her Sir Tim must “resign immediately or be sacked.” She said UCL’s handling of the matter was “utterly unacceptable”.
A colleague of hers, Greg Towers, said: “Everybody is disappointed that things were not dealt with more professionally. There are formal disciplinary proceedings and one would expect those to be operated. It shouldn’t just be done by somebody phoning somebody’s wife.”
“The university claims that it was not a knee-jerk reaction, influenced by Twitter, but that seems unlikely. People who don’t follow appropriate practice at UCL are on thin ice.”