When a butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul: UCL and the Tim Hunt affair

In chaos theory the butterfly effect goes something like this: A butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul and venerable scientific institutions in London fall over themselves to end the career of a Nobel laureate scientist.

Sir Tim Hunt made the following remarks at a world conference of science journalists in Seoul: ‘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.’ Hunt claims that what he said was ‘totally jocular [and] ironic’, and that it was uttered while feeling ‘nervous’ about speaking before the conference. The remarks certainly come across as the sort of nervy attempt to get an audience onside and engaged through an insider’s joke, and like many such attempts they are neither obviously funny nor well-considered. They are indeed sexist (which is not the same thing as saying that Hunt is sexist). It seems that Hunt didn’t think much had gone awry, but some of his audience were sufficiently unimpressed to start tweeting his remark. Escalation was rapid: strong condemnation appeared across social media, newspaper columnists quickly began intoning about problems of sexism in science, Hunt was labelled, among other things, ‘a clueless, sexist jerk’ and ‘a misogynist dude scientist’, and before Hunt’s plane had even landed back in England he had been forced to resign his honorary position at University College London. Subsequently he also resigned from the European Research Council and from his role at the Royal Society.

As to Hunt’s remarks themselves, they deserved a clarification and an apology—both of which Hunt provided. But it is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that 37 words can have the consequence of ending a distinguished career. I’m sure that among the many thousands of words I have spoken in lectures there might have been a few which, upon reflection, I might regret having said or would wish to have rephrased; there might also have been a few which, taken out of the specific context of the lecture itself and the tone in which I made them, would appear in isolation to be worthy of condemnation. One of my best jokes in my lectures (and, given it rarely raised a laugh from more than three students, evidence of my limited prospects as a comedian) was: ‘Let’s move from the delights of Balinese cocks to talk about French pussies.’ (The context was a discussion of Clifford Geertz’s essay on ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ and Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’.) Another of my favourite jokes involved me showing a slide of a bikini-clad Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson (that one always got more laughs, but as a visual joke it would be difficult to explain it here). There was always a slight risk that such jokes might backfire or take on a life of their own in this age of Twitter and Facebook, and that I could have been caught up in a maelstrom of impassioned discussion about ‘appropriate’ language or the problem with white male historians. (My career would probably have benefited from that sort of thing, so I rather regret that my students were sufficiently sensible to understand or ignore or not laugh at my jokes; I could have done with the occasional hothead in my audience, full of unintelligent righteous indignation and with a massive following on Twitter.)

None of which is to defend Hunt’s ‘joke’. I merely make the point that we live in a time in which a career can easily be pegged onto a single sentence—and a sentence which may be misunderstood or misrepresented, and, even if neither of those, may amount to no more than the sort of ill-considered poorly expressed comment that we all make from time to time.

The really interesting feature of Hunt’s case seems to me less the lynching mentality amid the social media wildfire and more the response of UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society. Imagine you’re an eminent academic with a distinguished career, probably not well-versed in social media and likely with little or no media training; you make a rather crass remark, but one you hadn’t given much thought to at the time; once it has been brought to your attention you issue an apology and a retraction, sincerely admitting your error and folly; nevertheless, you discover that your initial remark is now being discussed with varying degrees of outrage all over the world. What would you expect your college—your employer and the institution which supposedly supports and nurtures your work from which they benefit—to do? It is understandable that they would wish to distance themselves from the remark, but you might reasonably expect that they would also wish to discuss the matter with you, to seek clarification, and not to rush to judgement. You are likely to hope that they would offer support and protection against the media lynch mob, and that they would use their expertise to help find a way through the storm. Sure, you may have to issue yet further apologies, and you are going to have to put up with a battering for a while, but assuming your initial remark was not totally beyond the pale and your subsequent apology is sincere, then you might reasonably expect that your college would stand by you and find ways of repairing your (and their) reputation.

Instead of speaking to Hunt about his comments in Seoul, UCL decided to tell his wife (Mary Collins, also a scientist at the college) that her husband should resign immediately or that he would be sacked. Hunt duly resigned as soon as he returned to England. UCL softened this ultimatum by saying it would be ‘a low-key affair’, but then proceeded to trumpet on their website and Twitter how they had got rid of him. Hunt’s positions at the ERC and the Royal Society became untenable as a result, so he resigned from them too. His long scientific career was over. As he has said: ‘I am finished. I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.’ Whatever the wrongs of his remarks in Seoul—foolish and crass, but surely not remotely near to being at the most offensive end of the spectrum, and over which he has been genuinely contrite—Hunt appears to be right: he has been hung out to dry by UCL.

Yet perhaps we should not be surprised at this outcome. Collins, who has described her husband’s remarks as ‘unbelievably stupid’ but utterly rejected the idea that he is sexist, has commented: ‘They [UCL] have let Tim and I down badly. They cared only for their reputation and not about the wellbeing of their staff.’ But such is the modern academy. The days when a university was collegiate—when academics were nurtured and supported through both good times and bad—are rapidly fading. The modern academic institution increasingly resembles a brand and a business: any inkling that the brand may be damaged, any indication that an academic’s output may fall short financial targets, then, no matter how dedicated or hard-working or distinguished the academic, the institution is likely to abandon rather than support the individual. Sometimes an entire department, if it has failed to ‘game’ the ridiculous REF exercise, faces the brutal axe; and in their different ways the experiences of Tim Hunt, Stefan Grimm and Marina Warner all point to a dispiritingly corporate and inhuman culture that pervades the academy today.

One way of looking at this is to see it as an example of a wonderful bureaucratic rationalism: as long as you meet all the performance targets and are careful to stay consistently ‘on message’, then you’ll be fine; fail to do either of those, then you’re out. Some would say this is the only way to maintain excellence. But in fact sober reason has nothing to do with this. If, on the basis of a single remark such as that of Tim Hunt, a long career is summarily terminated, then the world we live in is not rational; rather, it is a world of chaos.

Bullying, Metrics, and the Death of Professor Stefan Grimm

On 25 September 2014, Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, was found dead in his home. He was 51. An inquest into his death has been opened and, while no official cause has yet been given, it would appear that he committed suicide. One reason to suspect suicide is that an unusual thing happened on 21 October, nearly four weeks after Grimm’s death. An email with the subject heading ‘How Professors are treated at Imperial College’ was sent from Grimm’s account to about forty internal addresses at the college. It would appear that Grimm had pre-set his account to send this email after his death; nothing has so far suggested that it is anything other than genuine. The email presents a dispiriting and disturbing insight into the state of modern British academia.

Included with Grimm’s message were two emails sent to Grimm by Martin Wilkins, professor of clinical pharmacology and head of the division of experimental medicine at Imperial. All these emails have subsequently been leaked and have now become public knowledge; the Times Higher Education has published them in full alongside an article on Grimm’s death. There has also been extensive commentary in other publications as well as on blogs (notably by David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London).

The essence of the exchange and the circumstances outlined in the emails is as follows. Grimm, an active and successful researcher with over seventy publications to his name, a large number of grant applications and recipient of significant research funding, was informally and humiliatingly told by Wilkins that he would be sacked. Wilkins’ emails to Grimm confirm that steps were being taken that would in all likelihood lead to Grimm’s dismissal. With barely disguised insensitivity, Wilkins explained to Grimm ‘that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College’, and that, unless Grimm’s performance improved, formal disciplinary procedures would be initiated. It is hard not to share Grimm’s bemusement that none of his various publications or research activity seemed to count in the eyes of the college. The final straw seems to have come when Grimm was informed by Wilkins that he would no longer be able to supervise a PhD student who had been accepted by the college and wished to work under Grimm. As Grimm wrote in his email: ‘He [the prospective PhD student] waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should not now happen. What these guys [Wilkins and Gavin Screaton, then head of medicine at Imperial] don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.’

Anyone who has worked in academia will understand Grimm’s sentiments. This is not a career one falls into for want of better alternatives; it takes years of study, often combined with straitened financial circumstances and self-sacrifice, to acquire the experience, skills and knowledge necessary to work in academia. Why do this? Because of a passion and dedication about knowledge and furthering that knowledge through research and teaching, because academics care intensely about what they do and about its importance. There are times when research goes spectacularly well, but the nature of research is that there are also fallow periods, times when dead-ends are reached and new approaches need to be taken, times when patient, slow groundwork is being established that takes time to yield results. Part of the point of the university is to provide the institutional setting in which teaching and research can be nurtured—in which the commitment, hard work, and ups and downs of the life dedicated to academia will be understood, appreciated, respected and supported. Increasingly, however, universities regard their academic staff as little more than expendable items on a profit/loss balance sheet. Once that mentality has set in among university management, it does not take long for the type of shabby, undermining and humiliating treatment that appears to have been meted out to Grimm to become the rule rather than the exception.

Much of the comment on Grimm’s death and the circumstances surrounding it has focused on two things: the culture of academic bullying; and the absurdity of metrics. There is no doubt that Wilkins emerges from the exchange as a bully (or perhaps as the bullying henchman of Screaton, possibly ‘only following orders’); his approach to management and interpersonal relations comes across as arrogant, callous and deliberately humiliating. Some of the blogs and online commentary suggest that Wilkins is far from unique, and that a culture of bullying is rife not only at Imperial College but across academia. As Colquhoun notes on his blog, there has been a strikingly high number of university staff taking their employers to employment tribunals, and vastly more who have signed gagging orders preventing them from speaking out about their employers—evidence at the very least of widespread problems in employer-employee relations across academia.

The days of collegiality when management might be expected to support their academic staff are fast disappearing. As Grimm notes in his final email, Imperial (although for Imperial almost any university in the UK could be substituted here) ‘is not a university anymore but a business with [a] very few up in the hierarchy… profiteering [while] the rest of us are milked for money’. The culture of university management increasingly sees both academics and students as little more than sources of potential profit. The language used in universities gives it away: academics are expected to think about ‘branding’ and ‘marketization’; business plans and strategies are the new models for how to run an academic department; departments have business managers these days. Universities were originally centres of learning, teaching and research with managerial and bureaucratic structures designed to support that core function; but increasingly learning, teaching and research have assumed the new role of supporting the managerial and bureaucratic corporations that universities have become.

The problem with running universities as corporate businesses is that much of the activity of academics does not fit into a business model. Learning and teaching, for example, are hard to quantify since they do not generate any obvious profits, and thus tend not to be highly valued by management. Student recruitment and retention are seen as important, but not as goods in themselves, rather because high levels of recruitment and retention lead to increased income. Nor does much research sit easily with a business culture. In the older collegial culture it was understood that research needed to be nurtured; researchers often needed time and patience, and they needed support even if their field, however intrinsically important, was not high profile or likely to attract large amounts of funding. Quality, above all, was the key aim. In the current climate productivity and ‘impact’ are the only things that matter. Those academics able to churn out a steady stream of articles are favoured over those whose output is good but may have fallow periods when they need patiently to develop their research without the unremitting and constant pressure of having to publish at regular intervals. Moreover, much research, by its very nature, is an investigation the outcome of which is unclear or uncertain. But modern university managers have little time for this; they want to know even before the research has begun that it will have a significant impact—not on scholarship but on wider society outside. Much valuable research struggles to find a wide audience, yet is important for its long-term contributions to knowledge and understanding; modern university management has minimal interest in such work since it does not fit with their focus on the relentless pursuit of profit. The system favours those researchers who choose obviously high-profile topics, but of such a nature that neither breadth nor depth will get in the way of rapid production. The aim, it would seem, is to turn universities into research factories, academics into research machines. Academics who resist the bleak prospect of becoming nothing other than an efficient, productive research machine are marked for redundancy.

University managers will object by saying that they care greatly about quality of research, that in fact all sorts of measures have been designed to assess quality. These are the metrics, the means (it is supposed) by which the performance of an individual or an organization can be measured. Metrics tend to be highly complex—and absurd. (For those interested in why they are absurd, see Colquhoun’s discussion of them here and here.) It would seem obvious to most people that in order to assess the quality of research it might be a good idea actually to read that research. In the increasingly Kafkaesque world of the modern university, however, judgments are made about research not by reading it but according to baroque and opaque performance indicators. Formulae, spreadsheets and number-crunching have replaced old-fashioned concepts of reading and thinking about something in order to consider whether it is valuable or not. How many citations a piece of research has received, where in a journal a piece of research appears, what numerical rating has been assigned to the ‘impact factor’ of a journal, what numerical value has been assigned to the position a researcher’s name appears in the list of authors of the research—out of all these comes an overall numerical value which rates the quality of the research. It is the brave new world in which managers believe they have discovered the secret of quantifying quality without having to think about or understand what it is they are attempting to quantify. It would be like trying to assess the quality of music not by listening to the music itself but by working out a formula which factors in chart success, size of record label and writing credits to generate a (spuriously) scientific number representing quality.

While hardly bearing comparison with the experience of Stefan Grimm, a former colleague (an academic in the humanities) told me his own dealings with the new university culture. When asked whether he had any research to submit to the recent Research Evaluation Framework (REF) he suggested some articles written over the previous few years. He considered them to be good contributions to scholarship, but of course it was for others to judge; one way they might assess their quality would be to read them. However, his research was immediately dismissed out of hand, without being read, as being unsuitable for the REF: one article because it was co-authored (so much for encouraging collaboration in the humanities!), another because it was an essay in an edited book (that the book was edited by some of the leading scholars in their field meant nothing), a third because it was not in a prestigious enough journal, and a fourth because it was a review article, and again not in a journal with a sufficient international reputation (that the review was intended to make a useful contribution to a broad research area made no difference). Clearly he was a poorly-performing academic by the criteria of the university, notwithstanding the long hours he committed to the job and his extensive and, as was evident from feedback from both students and colleagues, successful teaching and administrative roles. His approach to research and academic work did not fit the REF-model and the current values of university management; thus it was made clear to him that, unless he started complying with the system, he had no realistic future in academia. Despite his dedication and contribution to his university, he has unsurprisingly become disillusioned enough to wonder whether academia is an environment he wants to be in any longer.

The modern values of university management are such that a university will abandon plans for a new building to house a Human Rights Centre of worldwide reputation, replacing it instead with a business school; it will attempt to close down the history of art department; it will suggest putting the Latin American collection up for sale; it will not renew the visiting post of a Nobel laureate; and it will lose a renowned writer and chair of the Man Booker International Prize because it is not prepared to accommodate her roles (the prestige and reputation of which clearly mean nothing to the managers) with the rigid and constantly-monitored targets devised by management. All this at the University of Essex (as recounted by Marina Warner in the London Review of Books, volume 36 number 17, 11 September 2014, pp. 42-3).

It is hardly surprising that such a culture fosters bullying on the part of managers, and stress, anxiety and insecurity among academic staff. Some will argue that this is a recipe for ‘success’: Imperial College is ranked, after all, among the top few universities in the world (using, of course, ranking systems based on yet more absurd metrics). Others may wonder whether the price to be paid for this ‘success’ is worth it: the important research that does not get done because it does not fit the current business model; the excellent teachers who are dispensed with because their work does not fit with the performance metrics; the students who are squeezed for every penny, and the unsavoury scramble for international students who bring in the highest fees; the rewards of long and dedicated service in academia coming in the form of intimidation, humiliation and mass sackings; the human suffering of depression, stress and anxiety among academics that comes in the wake of the managerial culture; and, possibly, the death of Stefan Grimm.