At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, Nobel laureate in chemistry Kurt Wüthrich sparked broader discussions about diversity after he spoke out against what he described as discrimination against men.
Wüthrich made his comments during a June 27 panel discussion on the future of structural biology. After describing the fun of science, he changed tack by saying, “It is clear from the first day of the meeting that science is not going to be the main subject, unfortunately.” Wüthrich called on attendees to read a German newspaper interview with fellow laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard warning that diversity efforts could lead to discrimination against men. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in science.
Researchers pushed back on Wüthrich’s comments during the subsequent Q&A, and longer conversations followed. “There were huge discussions between the young scientists,” says Daniel Ming-Kang Lee, a postdoc at Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin who was at the meeting. Lee says he sees the exchange as a good thing, because it brings the topic into the open.
Speaking to C&EN, Wüthrich says there are excellent female researchers in his group, department, and field and that he had not planned to make the comments before the day of the panel. After reading the interview with Nüsslein-Volhard that morning and discussing it with the researcher herself, he wanted to make sure attendees read the article. Wüthrich says he was disappointed with how the 2023 Lindau meeting changed focus from the many meetings he had attended up to 2019.
“I like people who do science,” he says. “I don’t like people so much who limit free speech about science with codes of conduct.”
The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are prestigious annual events intended to promote exchange between Nobel laureates and early-career researchers. The topic of the meetings rotate through disciplines. Young scientists can attend only once.
In recent years, organizers have changed several aspects of the meeting after feedback from younger participants about their experiences. Nadja Hümpfer, a biochemist working toward her doctorate in biomedical sciences at the Free University of Berlin, attended the meeting in 2022. She recalls an open exchange with a Nobel laureate who dismissed her recounting of her experience as a Black woman in Germany. “While I was making that statement I was basically crying, reliving the trauma of racist and sexist oppression in Germany,” she says.
Afterward, organizers reached out to several attendees, including Hümpfer. “I got the feeling they really wanted to improve their DEI framework,” she says, referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But events at this year’s meeting show more needs to be done, she says.
In a statement published July 6, the board of the council for the Lindau meetings says that “using a topical scientific session to address matters of personal grievance does not correspond to our values, ideas and guidelines for the meetings and the programme” but that Wüthrich’s statement was “covered by his right to free speech”. The board also made recommendations for future meetings, including appointing an ombudsperson and providing anonymous reporting channels.
Hümpfer and Lee say they would still encourage young scientists who have not yet gone to the Lindau meeting to apply to attend. “This meeting is actually one of the best meetings I ever attended in my life,” Lee says. “You’re here to exchange ideas, to connect with other people—and you learn from them.”