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Leadership and Science: a Q&A with Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences

Casey Valentine

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently discussed science careers and leadership at Stanford University during a conversation with Woods Institute Director Chris Field. McNutt served as the Director of the United States Geological Survey from 2009 to 2013 during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, after which she was the editor-in-chief of the journal Science. McNutt, previously a professor of Geophysics at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, also served as President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute from 1997 to 2009. McNutt explained the importance of public trust in science and what she hopes for the future of the National Academy and science as a whole.

Edited excerpts and a video from the conversation follow below. Photos are available on Flickr.

Q | Chris Field: Given your leadership experience, what’s your philosophy of helping a team work effectively and accomplish its goals?

A | Marcia McNutt: I think being the mother of identical twins is one of the best training experiences for being a leader because when you have clones that are arguing over something and you have to resolve that conflict, that’s when all of your negotiating skills are brought to the forefront…You realize that there’s nothing that separates them. One is not smarter than the other. One is not older or more talented than the other. There is nothing that you can use as a reason why one of them should get her way and the other one shouldn’t. The only way you can do it is by helping them work through it until they get to a compromise that they both can live with.

Leadership is all about building a shared sense of goal at the very highest level. Everyone has to say: “what is it that we’re trying to do on this expedition that we all agree would be the very best outcome we could possibly get from this expedition?” and “what is the role that each of us has to play, if we want to get that?”

Q | Field: How do you think we should address the issue of public trust in science?

A | McNutt: Every scientist needs to get out of their scientist bubbles and cultivate larger communities of non-scientists. Because I really get concerned when I hear of these surveys where they ask people to name a living scientist, and they can’t name a single one.

We need to spend more time talking to people about what science really is.

We just had a meeting a few weeks ago at Cold Spring Harbor on the topic of trust in science. The way the discussion went was interesting because as scientists, we do a horrible job—and we’re getting worse—at signaling within the community what we trust and what we don’t trust. And we are absolutely silent at signaling outside our community what we trust and what we don’t trust. Decades ago, it used to be, science that has not been peer-reviewed has no validity yet. Once it’s been peer-reviewed, then we trust it.  

The outcome of this meeting was that we are at risk of losing the public trust if we don’t do a better job of signaling which papers have gone through what gates along the way. We’re certainly not going to rewind the clock because pre-prints are here to stay and they’ve got their role, and they’re doing some very good things, but there should be some kind of signals of which papers have been checked for bias, conflict of interest, IRB approval, peer review, etc.

Q | Field: How are early career scientists being rewarded for public outreach and science communication?

A | McNutt: I am very concerned that most universities and research organizations today have far too narrow a set of criteria that they are evaluating their researchers and their faculty on. They are evaluating them on a subset of their research portfolio… Good work that they may be doing in promoting their work to the public and raising the visibility of science and doing outreach and engagement unfortunately is not getting the recognition it needs. I think we need to really expand the horizons of universities.

Q | Field: What is going to make universities embrace broader tenure and promotion criteria changes that perhaps do not favor their financial bottom lines?

A | McNutt: This is all wrapped up with the public perception of science. The reason I got involved in science and I’m sure the reason most of the people in this room got involved with science is that we all felt that by being scientists we could use the fruits of our research to actually help society. That science is one of the ways that an unbiased piece of evidence that we can bring to any discussion can help people make sound decisions. It just makes me cry when people are viewing science as some big business.

Q | Field: What do you want your legacy as President of the National Academy to be?

A | McNutt: For the National Academy, it’s diversification. I really want to leave the National Academy younger, with more women, racially more diverse and geographically more diverse. Right now, it’s very bicoastal, very male, and absent changing something, the Academy will actually start to shrink because it is electing members older and older every year. They are staying in the Academy a shorter time and so the Academy will actually get smaller every year as they die. We have to start getting younger people into the Academy or else we’re going to shrink.

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