Speaking up, speaking out (the 2023 Lindau Nobel laureate meeting controversy)

Speaking up, speaking out (the 2023 Lindau Nobel laureate meeting controversy)

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A Nobel laureate’s insistence that he feels discriminated against as a white man illustrates how far STEM fields still have to go when it comes to gender equality.

For those of you who missed it, there was one of those toe-curling, eye-rolling, he-didn’t-just-say-that-did-he incidents at the 2023 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that showcased science’s gender equality problem in a nutshell.

The Lindau meeting is well-meaning but kind of gross. It’s held on a beautiful little island (Lindau) in Lake Constance at the extreme southern end of Germany, where you can see the neighbouring Austrian and Swiss shorelines. The meeting brings together Nobel laureates (the largest concentration of them outside the Nobel Prize award ceremony) and rigorously-selected young scientists for a programme of talks and exchange.

It’s a lovely idea, but still kind of anachronistic and tone-deaf in today’s climate. Nobelists usually make the discoveries their prizes are based on ~ 22 years before the award, so you’re dealing not just with a privileged cohort but (on average) an old privileged one. In other words, scientists who are representatives of one and sometimes two generations back in time, and who haven’t had to worry about funding for at least a decade or so. They’re generally very…venerable. Sometimes, it’s a bit like watching a council of vampires reminisce about the good day days before the peasants got uppity and started objecting to being bled dry.

In 2023, the meeting made headlines for all the wrong reasons when Chemistry laureate Kurt Wüthrich (84 years old) used part of his speaking time to complain that he felt discriminated against in the current scientific climate because he was a white man. Afterwards, he was actually called out on this by one of the attendees.

To get a sense of the context, it’s worth watching the entire 52-minute recording of the session (here) because although Kurt’s statement made the headlines, that’s not the most significant or shocking thing about the incident. I’ve summarised the most important bits below… 😉

The session features four old white men, with a fifth old white man as moderator, discussing “The future of structural biology”. Besides Kurt, there’s Johann Deisenhofer (79 years old), Joachim Frank (82 years old), and Hartmut Michel (74 years old), with Wolfgang Lubitz (74 years old) MCing. The combined age of the stars of this show is nearly 400 years; none of the young scientists attending the Lindau meeting are over 35. Inevitably, the style and feel of the session is rather formal and stilted in the old Germanic way.

To begin, Hartmut Michel gives a Powerpoint presentation on the topic of the session that runs until the 16-minute mark. Afterwards, there’s questions to the 25 minute mark. So far, so good. 

Kurt then speaks from the 25 minute mark until the 34 minute mark. His opening remarks are worth quoting verbatim:

“It’s a pleasure to be here and given five minutes to address an audience. The title of this meeting is the future of structural biology, so you will understand that I have no slides because the future is ahead and I don’t have slides yet. It’s impossible to have slides of the future. What else should I say? Science is fun. And being in structural biology is all the more fun because most of your results give us beautiful quality pictures.“

[He’s smiling, he’s affable, he feels at home. He wisecracks about there being different acronyms for NMR such as “no more results”.]

At 28’ 50”, Kurt decides to go off-topic: 
“It is clear from the way that the first day of this meeting went that science is not going to be the main subject, unfortunately. This is unfortunately also reflected in the reports in the newspapers about this meeting, and specifically there is an interview with our colleague Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard whom I have long admired for her scientific work, and the title is “Man sollte vorsichtig sein: sonst kommt es zur Männerdiskriminierung”. I have requested from the organisers that this interview, which appeared in German today in the newspaper, is translated and distributed to all the participants in this meeting as a  supplement to what you learn all the time here about what science is not about. I must say that as a male scientist I have a feeling of discrimination when I am here in the climate that this meeting is being held. And I hope that you will get this article to read before the meeting is over.”

[And that’s it. Kurt then returns to the topic of structural biology.]

30’ 35”:
“Now I want to spend three minutes to try to indicate to you how a future project could grow out of a working laboratory. I have no slides here. I refer you to our publications of this year and last year…”

[At this point, still without slides or even any visual aids, and apparently happy to tell people to go off and read his previous work, he attempts to explain signal transduction using his hands and the meeting’s free paper booklet; it’s staggeringly complacent.]

[Towards the end of his talk, he mentions that the average age in his group is 24 years. He talks about the joy of doing research and not worrying about money, positions, or whatever. Science really can be fun when you don’t have to worry about all that stuff, right?]

34’ 10”:
The Q&A begins. The moderator, sensing controversy, attempts to head off any discussion of Kurt’s aside:

“Your questions. Please, discuss the problem of male discrimination with Kurt in his open exchange session (this afternoon, right?), and ask questions please related to structural biology to the methods and to the possible applications.”

[The audience does as it always does in these situations, and follows instructions. The first question is from a male scientist, and the next four from female scientists. Kurt participates in Q&A on scientific level. He’s lively, he’s interested, he’s engaged.]

Then at 46’30” comes the fifth questioner:

“Thank you for your amazing and insightful, um, talks and I wanted to quickly um do a quick comment and then a follow-up question. Um, its very…as a female researcher, it’s been very um uncomfortable for myself to see a Nobel laureate talking about so-called male discrimination [the moderator attempts to cut her off] and – I just, let me continue please – and then even you as a moderator silencing women in this room to comment on that makes me even more uncomfortable being in this room. There might be individual discrimination towards men but it is nothing compared to the systematic and structural discrimination that women have to face especially in the STEM fields. [applause]. So and if you would like a question you could go ahead and talk about how your procedure in this alliance with the Lindau guidelines on diversity and inclusion.

The Moderator apologises for trying to cut her off and flails around a bit: 

“… we don’t have the time in this round to go into the details and discuss it. We can do that separately. And I’m willing to join that.” 

48’ 40” – Kurt decides the moderator’s style isn’t forthright enough:
“ Er, excuse me, I again feel unjustly attacked by you. Because I was using an article by one of your colleagues, by Mrs – Mrs [note – no “Professor” title here!] – Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Not by a man. Ok. good.” 

“Yeah, I can see that. She a very extremely successful Nobel laureate and you were using her article. You could have asked any young female scientist how they were feeling – would have also been an option.” 

[Kurt refuses to comment on how his procedure relates to the Lindau guidelines on diversity and inclusion.]

[Afterwards, everything continues as if nothing had happened. There’s another scientific question from the audience, and then things wind up. The moderator notes that the session is 6 minutes over time, and there were “incidences” that we should not have had.] 

And that’s it. That’s all of it. 

What shocks is the banality of it. The familiarity of it. It’s pompous, it’s entitled, but it’s not dramatic. It’s a scene we’ve all seen. A powerful male scientist makes an awkward chauvinistic comment; everyone shifts in their seats and eyeballs their neighbour and shakes their heads and mutters under their breath, but ultimately, we look the other way. 

Kurt didn’t do anything any of us haven’t already seen before. I was at the German Society for Parasitology meeting back in March 2023 and there was a similar scene of an old white male scientist receiving a prize and making not one but two cringemakingly sexist statements during his talk. I looked at my neighbour and raised my eyebrows and pulled a face; she did likewise. That was it. That was all anybody did.

The difference in Lindau was that here, Kurt – rightly – got called out for it. The difference was the young scientist having the courage to stand up and being willing to defy the moderator’s instructions and call him out on it. Courage of any kind is rare. Moral courage of this kind is really rare. Plenty of people clapped when the question was asked, but nobody – not any of the laureates, not the moderator, not any attendees – took the microphone to assert their agreement.

This, then is the real problem: Kurt wasn’t unusual – the young female scientist was. What surprises and shocks on viewing the complete video of the session is not what was said, because it’s said in private and even in public quite often, but that people don’t usually react and call out those statements. We’ve all seen a Kurt, but almost none of us has seen someone like her. 

That’s the way of these kind of things. They’re shrugged off, like a relative or friend who suddenly starts coming out with weird stuff after one beer too many. But to those not lucky enough to be in the majority, all these things are signals that you aren’t really part of the proceedings or that your presence is being graciously tolerated somehow. These are the things that add up to systemic bias. There are many fine words and statements, but all too often there’s a reluctance to change behaviour to make a real difference. 

This, perhaps, is what Kurt was really objecting to. Kurt is a white man but he probably feels discriminated against not because of that, but because he’s being asked – perhaps for the first time ever – to think about people other than himself. He says he feels discriminated against as a white man, but what he really means is that he feels a hitherto unfamiliar restraint on his behaviour. What he objects to is not being able to do what he wants. 

I don’t think he necessarily thinks white men are better than everyone else. In fact, I think most people who genuinely believe white men are better than everyone else tend not to be in positions of power – the belief of superiority amplifies a rage against a current predicament and intensifies the sense of injustice. That’s also why people like Donald Trump can say they’re not racist or sexist or chauvinistic, and quite possibly believe it. They just think they’re better than everyone else, and hate being called to account. They’re not used to answering for their actions. 

What Kurt demonstrated quite profoundly and unintentionally was the entitlement felt by this particular breed of old white men. There is, and you can see this, genuine bafflement and frustration on his face. He simply doesn’t get it.

Is it fair? Criticising a plainly muddled old man, a relic of a different time and a different academic culture? Yes it is. Because he’s still scientifically active, he’s running not one but three laboratories, he’s influencing dozens of young scientists working for him, and Lindau and other meetings are giving him and his outdated opinions a platform time and time again. 

Young scientists would be far better off hearing from people who are reckoned as being currently at the top of their fields and still under the age of 60 – this alone would guarantee much better gender equality on the stage. And all of us should follow that courageous young woman’s example and start speaking up, and speaking out whenever we hear grotesque statements of this type.

Originally posted on Total Internal Reflection - here

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