Home > Why There Are No Women in Science > Morals vs. Pragmatism

Morals vs. Pragmatism

Back in early August, I wrote about the Karpova-Tonegawa controversy at MIT, and about Rollins College president Lewis Duncan’s comments on the topic in the Boston Globe.

More on the Karpova-Toadygawa story. This may be the best part of all. Because you see, Zuskateers, it isn’t just Toadygawa who’s had his true colors exposed. Consider this quote from the Boston Globe:

If the accusations are deemed true, [MIT president] Hockfield will face the task of standing up to one of MIT’s greatest luminaries, someone who brings in tens of millions of dollars of research funding. “This may come down to a question of pragmatism vs. moral leadership for the president,” said Lewis M. Duncan, president of Rollins College in Florida and former dean of engineering at Dartmouth College.

There you have it. Out in print. If you bring in enough research money, presidents and deans of engineering will let you get away with the most egregious forms of sex discrimination because, after all, it’s pragmatic. Even if it is ILLEGAL. Go ahead and hang the women out to dry. Or let them hang themselves; laundry is women’s work, isn’t it?

To sum up: he’s rich, you’re a bitch.

I encouraged my readers to email President Duncan and complain about the danger of remarks like his; that even if he didn’t mean them that way, such remarks can be interpreted by the morons of the world to mean “that illegality is pragmatic and therefore we should just toss our morals out the window because after all, it’s just women, and we all know their tiny brains can’t handle the math anyway.” I offered a sample letter (phrased much more politely) for those who were too busy to take time to compose their own.
Before I wrote that entry, I called President Duncan’s office to confirm that he had been quoted accurately in the Globe. And I let them know that I was going to write about the quote in my blog. Also that what I had to say wasn’t going to be very favorable. to the president. Soon after the entry posted, President Duncan sent me an email taking “strong exception to [my] misleading interpretation and extrapolation of [his] quote in the Boston Globe” and he asked that I at least print his email and attached full copy of remarks to the Boston Globe.
After the jump, you’ll find the remarks he sent to the Globe, and my deconstruction.


What follows is the text of President Duncan’s remarks to the Boston Globe. Bracketed italic text is commentary inserted by me.

We might hope in some idealistic moment that science as the pursuit of knowledge and basic understanding of nature should be an inherently altruistic endeavor, of individual service toward a greater societal good. [But it’s not, so buck up and be a man.] For a scientist true of heart, should not discovery be its own reward? [If you are a fool or loser.] However, science is, after all, a human pursuit, and scientists involved are fully susceptible to the realities of our own human nature. As in all other fields of human endeavor, the history of science is filled with stories of jealousies and accusations, of bitter competitions and occasional cooperations. Interestingly, behind these science rivalries is often a different motivation than found underlying many other competitions. [This is gonna be good…] In science, rarely is such peer antagonism inspired by the promise of extravagant material reward, but more often is motivated by the need for recognition and praise from disciplinary colleagues, scientific peers, and the general public. [Our petty battles over power and money are nobler than anybody else’s.] And the ownership of ideas becomes even more contentious for fields such as neuroscience that develop at the intersection of traditional disciplines. [When disciplinary boundaries are shifting and contested, it is important to police those boundaries and demonstrate to outsiders that one’s discipline is disciplined. That one’s science isn’t soft and mushy and indistinct; that one is doing the very hardest of hard science. One must be impenetrable. The consolidation of disciplinary standards and development of professionalism in any field of science or engineering is generally accompanied by increasing attempts to keep women out of the nascent discipline.***]

Colleges and universities are not so different in ambition. [Our stars look good, we look good.] Until very recently, the benefit of research to universities was less stimulated by direct financial reward, and much more associated with issues of institutional reputation and ranking. [Money matters a lot.] Within academia, we still talk mostly about who is at an institution, not how much money their research generates. [We talk about who is at an institution because of how much money their research generates.] Similarly, Dr. Tonegawa’s Nobel Prize is much more important in terms of recognition of accomplishment than financial benefit. [Because the recognition helps bring in the coin.] However, such recognition in itself offers little insight into the abilities or inclinations of any individual for positions of leadership, particularly for the kind of service leadership necessitated for the mentoring and teaching of new scientists and students. [He sucks as a leader, but he brings in a LOT of cash.]

There are several different issues converging in the disappointing situation arising from Dr. Tonegawa’s abrupt response to Dr. Karpova, and her decision to accept employment elsewhere. [Disappointing? A woman’s entire career has been re-routed by a petty tyrant and the best you can come up with is disappointing?] That a prominent scientist would take this tact [sic] with a possible collaborator, or a perceived possible competitor, is certainly a matter of individual choice, though I would think it to be institutionally unacceptable that a possible new faculty member be so bluntly rejected by an Institute director and prospective faculty colleague. [So, if you want to go against the federal mandate of the funding you accepted for your fancy research institute, that’s your personal choice, and who am I to bicker? though it is a bit unseemly from the university’s perspective. Title IX? What’s Title IX?] From all that I have seen in the communications you provided, I do not believe that Dr. Tonegawa’s response was motivated by gender, nor even by threatened ability. [Sure.] I believe his response would likely have been the same to any similarly qualified prospective faculty candidate. [And this would be okay?] And even the most gifted rising young star in neuroscience would not represent a serious threat to Dr. Tonegawa’s already established remarkable credentials. [So WTF???]As one of the commentator’s noted, this seems more to be a matter of control, and apparent lack of interest in his serving as her collaborative mentor. [Which should make him unfit to be the director of a research institute, no?] As an educational institution, it does not compliment MIT to have this play out in the public eye, but it would be worse to have it not play out at all.

And as a final thought I would note that universities, in the final analysis, should be measured not by the accomplishments of their faculty, but rather by the accomplishments of their graduates. [Isn’t it pretty to think so?] In Dr. Karpova’s choosing not to come to MIT, I believe that it is the future students of MIT who have suffered the greatest loss. That is the true tragedy. [Indeed.]

In my next post, I will print President Duncan’s email to me and comment on it.
***See, for example, the case of Ethel Ricker. She was elected to Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society, in 1903. This was at a time when engineering was beginning to consolidate as a profession that required a college degree rather than a practice one could apprentice one’s way into. The National Executive Board overturned the vote admitting Ricker to membership AND voted to amend the constitution to exclude women. It was not until 1969 that the constitution was again amended to admit women, and 1973 that sexist language was removed from the constitution. In 1976, the first female national officer was elected. Source: Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine, Amsterdam University Press, 1999.

  1. Greg
    October 24, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    This is embarrassing to read. I hope he was more careful writing his email.

  2. bsci
    October 25, 2006 at 11:25 am

    I’m still not convinced that the Karpova-Tonegawa controversy is a gender thing. You seem to recognize this possibility, but you read the Duncan email through the gender lense.
    The way I see it, this is an example of a senior scientist who has more interest in protecting his own turf than advancing science or mentoring young faculty. Reading the Duncan letter as such, the moral leadership issue is whether the MIT president should allow turf wars to affect the hiring of faculty. The moral answer is clearly “no.” Turf wars are on many campuses and similar situations happen often. Perhaps the main uniqueness of this case is that the faculty actually decided to hire Karpova and Tonegawa took his own opinion out of the communal decision making process to make sure Karpova wouldn’t accept the job.
    The reason I’m making this distinction is that, assuming gender wasn’t a factor, nothing illegal was done. The behavior was immoral and wrong and Duncan’s email seemed to be a challenge to the MIT president to do the right thing and think of more than money. Perhaps your continuing email with Duncan clarify this more.

  3. HI
    October 26, 2006 at 12:54 am

    I, by no means, defend the behavior of Tonegawa, but I also question if this really was a gender issue. In fact, I had heard a gossip that he acted in a similar way against hiring of a young promising male neuroscientist a few years prior to this. (I might add that this young neuroscientist is not white, but people wouldn’t see this as a race issue simply because Tonegawa is not white either.)
    I know it is a little irresponsible of me to write about this with only secondhand knowledge without knowing the details. I don’t even know he was offered the position. But he sounded like a strong candidate, having done a postdoc with a prominent neuroscientist (arguably an even bigger figure in neuroscience than Tonegawa, who became famous for his immunology works) and published very interesting (if controversial) papers that even a non-expert like me got to hear about. I don’t know what Tonegawa said or did in this case, but when I read about Karpova-Tonegawa controversy later, I saw the same pattern.
    What Tonegawa did is wrong. It doesn’t help the career of the young scientists. It doesn’t help quality of research at MIT. It doesn’t help science. Whether it is legal or not is secondary. Also I do think that problems that women face as they pursue career in science need to be fixed. But I just don’t think that the gender was central to this particular case.

  4. October 26, 2006 at 10:11 am

    I guess all those women faculty at MIT who went to the president over this issue were just deluded. Got themselves all in a tizzy over nothing. Angry harridans. That Nancy Hopkins is just always looking through the gender lens. What would she know? Bitchy feminist. Clearly, if she thought it had to do with gender, that makes the whole thing suspect. I mean, those MIT women professors, being so close to the issue and all, how could we take their word that it had anything to do with gender? Yes, I think we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that this is just one angry man’s attempt to defend his turf and he would be just as nasty, mean, and competitive to anyone. Let’s all dig up all the examples we can think of to prove that it had NOTHING to do with gender. Because that’s what we do every time gender issues are raised, right? We try to prove it had nothing to do with gender. Because if we can just dismiss each individual case, one at a time, we need never acknowledge that there is any systemic problem.
    Yay! We can call go home now, I can stop blogging, and we can inform all the women of the world that THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS AT ALL IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Well, except for the bitchy harridans who keep talking about gender.

  5. bsci
    October 26, 2006 at 12:34 pm

    Seriously Zuska. Could you please read comments before putting words in other people’s mouths. I’ve never said there are no gender problems in all of science and engineering. In fact I’ll say it now and I’ve said in the past that there are serious problems. Although I’ve never met her, I respect the work Nancy Hopkins has done at MIT.
    Still, with a quick glance at some source text it seems that Nancy Hopkins actually agrees with me. Read the formal letter she signed regarding this issue:
    http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/191/to_hockfield.pdf
    It is signed by all female faculty and it is noted that Karpova is female, but gender is not mentioned as an issue at all. There is no question this eminent group of scientists could have mentioned gender bias if they thought it directly related to Tonegawa’s behavior.
    In a subsequent article:
    http://www-tech.mit.edu/V126/N30/30tonegawa.html
    Nancy Hopkins comments specifically on gender. She says, “Regardless of the specifics of any one case, it is always a gender issue in recruiting because of the significant under-representation of women on the faculty,” Hopkins said, adding that there are currently 36 women and 240 men on the School of Science faculty at MIT. “We know that identifying and attracting exceptional women can require novel approaches and special commitment by the faculty and administration.”
    This I agree with completely. The fact that Karpova was caught in politics was not because of her gender, but the fact that women are so rare at MIT makes it all the more the tragedy and the university should have work harder to make sure these things don’t happen.
    Do you disagree with Nancy Hopkins or at least my interpretation of what she said?

  6. October 29, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    BSCI, I’m sorry, but this is a gender issue, and Nancy Hopkins agrees with me, because she told me so in an email. If you will read my original post on the whole mess at http://radio.weblogs.com/0147021/2006/08/03.html#a167, and see my “sample letter” to President Duncan – I sent a modified version of this letter to Dr. Tonegawa and copied Dr. Hopkins on it. She emailed me back and said she agreed with me. Here’s the part of the letter that explains why this is a gender issue:

    As you know, the NIH is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research. That means taxpayer dollars pay for research like that conducted at Dr. Susumu Tonegawa?s Picower Institute. In addition, NIH funds center grants, worth millions and millions of dollars over 5 and 10 year periods; the Picower institute has nine such grants totaling a possible $45 million, with Dr. Tonegawa as principal investigator. As a taxpayer, I am concerned as to whether or not federal funds are being used in an educational setting that discriminates against women – which, of course, is illegal (Title IX). I think that’s enough money for the public to want some accountability. In addition, the guidelines for Silvio O. Conte Centers for Neuroscience Research, such as the Picower Institute, state:

    [Centers] should provide opportunities for young investigators who have the potential for independent research careers to become skilled in the experimental strategies, approaches, and techniques of modern neuroscience research. In addition, there should be close coordination between the Center and relevant predoctoral and/or postdoctoral research training programs of the participating institutions. Special attention should also be given to the recruitment and training of minority students.

    As a taxpayer, I am paying individuals like Dr. Tonegawa not only to do research, but to mentor and train young scientists. Graduate students and postdoctoral students in other laboratories who could benefit from the resources and work in centers like the Picower should and must have access to those resources. To deny them access is to violate the terms of the federal funding such centers accepted. To deny them because they are women or minorities is to violate Federal law. I hope this is not the case at MIT or elsewhere.

    It isn’t just “getting caught in politics”. It’s getting caught in politics that are gendered – and potentially in violation of federal law.

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