Science Policy & Funding News

Academy President Warns of “Storm Clouds” on the Horizon

McNutt says that business as usual “is not a viable option” for the academy in the near term to fulfill its mission and remain a relevant institution.


Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), provided a strong defense of science and expressed optimism about the state of science in the United States during her first address to academy members at the organization’s annual meeting in Washington, D. C., on Monday.

However, McNutt cautioned in her speech about “major storm clouds on the horizon, fundamental changes sweeping the nation and the world, and new norms to which we must adjust,” including some challenging socioeconomic trends. And she appeared to take issue with the Trump administration about the value of international alliances and its slow pace of naming science appointees.

The academy “believes that at a time when our own government appears to be signaling a retreat from international alliances, it is important for us to increase our international visibility to assert that U.S. science is still vibrant and willing to assume leadership,” said McNutt. Global challenges—including climate change, pandemic diseases, and the root causes of terrorism—are common threats that science can address, according to McNutt, who took office in July 2016 as the first woman to lead NAS. McNutt previously was editor in chief of the Science family of journals, and she also has served as director of the U.S. Geological Survey and president of the American Geophysical Union.

A Slow Start in Filling Positions

McNutt added that the administration “is off to an historically slow start in terms of political appointments,” which she said explains why its science policy is still forming. The administration still has not named appointees for many important science positions, including White House science adviser, top positions within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and directors of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Looking on the bright side, McNutt noted that the delay provides a large window of time for the academy to help shape key science appointments and major science initiatives. The academy, she said, has had “a frank conversation” about science in the new administration with a senior White House adviser. That conversation opened up a line of communication with the adviser, who is close to the president, and it provided a better understanding of how NAS could be helpful to the administration, she noted. McNutt said, for instance, that if this administration chooses to hire fewer policy personnel than previous administrations, “it could provide an opportunity for the academies to help fill in some gaps.”

McNutt said that the budgets and timeliness of NAS reports could come into play with the administration. Although federal sponsors value consensus reports from NAS’s National Research Council, she said, those sponsors become cost conscious when federal budgets are tight. McNutt noted that NAS has initiated its first external review of the council to determine how to better execute its mission in light of budget and timeliness concerns. The review, conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration, began in March, and recommendations are anticipated at the end of the year.

Socioeconomic Issues

McNutt also pointed to two socioeconomic trends that the academy is addressing. The first regards how to help to workers—including those displaced by robotics, disruptive technologies, and international competition—to transition to new careers. An academy report on “Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce” is set to come out later this month. The second is the widening gap in levels of wealth. A forthcoming academy report, entitled “American Opportunity Study,” will answer the question of whether the American dream is still alive, McNutt said.

McNutt highlighted several other new academy initiatives, including expanding the reach of the academy’s Koshland Science Museum to larger audiences. She also discussed the launch of an initiative, tentatively titled “America Asks, Science Answers,” to help the lay public, who may not be familiar with NAS’s technical reports, to better understand science issues such as the impact of hydraulic fracking and the practicability of carbon sequestration.

Both of those initiatives “are intended to improve science engagement with the public in light of concerns that the respect for evidence in decision-making is waning and acceptance of ‘alternate facts’ is waxing,” she said.

“Business as usual,” McNutt noted, “is not a viable option” if the academy is to fulfill its mission in the near term and remain a relevant institution.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Academy president warns of “storm clouds” on the horizon, Eos, 98, Published on 03 May 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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