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Scientist sorry over girls comment

Published 10/06/2015

Sir Tim Hunt apologised for any offence caused by comments he made about women in science
Sir Tim Hunt apologised for any offence caused by comments he made about women in science

A Nobel laureate has apologised for any offence caused by comments about the "trouble with girls" involved in science.

Sir Tim Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2001, insisted his comments had been intended as a joke.

He reportedly told the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea : "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. 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."

The Royal Society distanced itself from Sir Tim's comments, which had sparked a backlash online.

Sir Tim told the BBC his comments were meant to be humorous, but added: "I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It is true that people - I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it's very disruptive to the science because it's terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.

"I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult.

"I'm really, really sorry I caused any offence, that's awful. I certainly didn't mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually."

Sir Tim became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1991. Ten years later he was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine alongside Lee Hartwell and Paul Nurse for their discoveries of "key regulators of the cell cycle".

The Royal Society said Sir Tim's comments did not reflect its views.

In a statement on its website, 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.

"Sir Tim Hunt was speaking as an individual and his reported comments in no way reflect the views of the Royal Society."

Sir Tim said he was "really sorry that I said what I said, it was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists".

"What was intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Defending his remarks, he added: "It's terribly important that you can criticise people's ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science."

Sir Tim reportedly described himself as a "chauvinist pig" and argued in favour of single-sex laboratories at the talk in South Korea.

Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at City University, was in the audience when Sir Tim made the remarks and described the experience as "awful".

She told Today: "After he had finished, there was this deathly silence. A lot of my colleagues sat down and were taking notes because they 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.

"It wasn't funny, what he was saying, at all. 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, then there's always complications about love.

"That's nonsense, it's so simplistic that it hardly bears thinking about."

Dr Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, told the programme: "As a Nobel laureate, I know that he is a human being, but he does have some sort of responsibility as a role model and as an ambassador for the profession.

"If you get up there and say things like that, even in a jokey sort of way, they are going to be taken out of context, they are going to be taken to heart by some young female scientists and I think that is a real shame because we still have a very long way to go to get equality in the sciences."

Dr Rohn said she had shared platforms with Sir Tim's wife Mary Collins, an immunology professor, and added: "I'm sure she doesn't approve of these comments. They must have been intended as a joke but that's no excuse."

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