Science Policy & Funding News

McNutt Breaks Barriers as Incoming Science Academy President

Two traditions fall to the wayside as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences selects its first woman ever as president and, in choosing her, elevates its second consecutive geoscientist to the helm.


Marine geophysicist Marcia McNutt will take office on 1 July as the first woman president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) since the academy’s founding in 1863. McNutt’s upcoming 6-year term will break from the academy’s normal selection of its president by placing a geoscientist for the second time in a row in a position that, according to McNutt, traditionally alternates between the life sciences and the physical sciences.

McNutt succeeds Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist who will step down after nearly two terms heading the academy. Both McNutt and Cicerone previously served as president of the American Geophysical Union. The academy nominated McNutt in July 2015 and elected her on 16 February 2016.

In an interview with Eos, McNutt called the break from tradition by electing another geoscientist significant as a signal that “we have to confront globally” such issues in the geosciences as climate change, sustainability, energy, raw materials, and natural hazards.

“That’s not to downplay the critical nature of other things that are in the news like Zika and Ebola and other pandemics,” said McNutt, who is editor in chief of the Science family of journals and previously served as director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “As tragic as those are to the afflicted populations, they probably don’t bear the same potential for global disruption as do some of the issues that we are facing in water security, in food security, in climate change destabilization.”

An Auspicious Time

NAS dates from the Civil War when an act of Congress established the private nonprofit organization to advise the nation on science and technology issues. McNutt called the academy “the only distinguished body of scientists that has the charter to provide advice to governments.” She told Eos that now is an “auspicious time” to serve as president of NAS. “It’s hard to argue that there is any time in history when we could say that science isn’t more needed to inform decisions,” she explained.

McNutt said that she wants to promote good science and keep politics out of it. “My role is, first of all, to make sure that the Academy continues to make it all about the science and not about the politics or not about anyone’s interpretation of what one should therefore do with the science,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is give any excuse for politicizing the science.”

In Congress, though, climate science often has become a political football. For instance, at an 8 December hearing on climate change, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is running for president, said that some scientists are “global warming alarmists.”

McNutt said the purpose of that and similar hearings is “carefully controlled theater” for members of Congress to go on record for their supporters. She said that no amount of letters or complaints from the academy could do much in those situations. “What we really have to do is start with, I believe, the American public because these members of Congress are responsive to their electorate.”

Woman at the Top

As the first woman to lead the academy, McNutt said that she feels a responsibility to be an advocate for women in science. “There are a number of women in the academy, including myself, who do feel an intense responsibility for this,” she said. Those efforts can include helping to elect more women to the academy itself and bringing more women into the science workforce, she said.

Setting the Tone

McNutt noted that her first priorities include getting to better know the organization and its efforts, including the many reports it issues on a range of topics. “How can we do the best job possible in terms of being responsive to the federal agencies by being cost-effective and timely without sacrificing the quality and the authoritative nature of those reports? That’s going to be a very high priority for me.”

Another priority McNutt mentioned was setting the tone, saying that she wants to establish a sense of the academy president as “an approachable human who loves to discuss science” and who is “accessible to anyone who has a true interest in wanting to understand science.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), McNutt breaks barriers as incoming science academy president, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO047203. Published on 1 March 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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