August 24, 2015
For the entire week, we are celebrating prominent female figures in science and science policy to recognize Women’s Equality Day on 26 August.
Today, we are excited to highlight Marcia McNutt, the current Editor-in-Chief of Science and nominee to become the first ever female President of the National Academies. McNutt received her BA in Physics from Colorado College and PhD in Earth Science from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
What is an obstacle you have had to overcome to get to your current position?
One you may not be expecting to hear is the obstacle of complacency. I have had a number of wonderful positions in my career: an endowed chair at MIT; directorship of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which is privately funded to explore the ocean in exciting new dimensions; leadership of the USGS, a pure science agency with the mission to protect Americans from natural disasters and provide unbiased information on water, energy, minerals, ecosystems, and climate change. I loved every minute in each of these positions and was sure that I would stay until the end of my days at each job I held. But had I not been open to the possibility of other opportunities, and willing to risk loss of tenure, pay cuts, time away from my family, etc., I would not be in my current position as the Council’s nominee for President of the National Academy of Sciences beginning next year.
What interests you about science policy?
To me science policy takes ordinary science and moves it into Pasteur’s quadrant: makes it of immediate practical application because it is informing decisions that help society. Scientists who effectively work at the science/policy interface do not worry that their work will lie forgotten. It is needed now to provide the necessary resources for our quality of life, to protect us from natural and non-natural disasters, to improve our health and the health of our environment, and to better manage our resources for a long-term future for our children and grandchildren.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in science policy?
As a scientist working in science policy I believe that the best course of action is to make science policy relevant, not policy proscriptive. When I have failed to follow this course is when I have gotten myself into trouble. Science is only one of many inputs into decisions, albeit an important one. Scientists can tell policy makers what science predicts the results will be of certain actions, but shouldn’t tell policy makers (or the public) what to do.
What should be the future priorities for scientific research in the U.S.?
We are already seeing irreversible degradation in the natural systems that are the planet’s life support. Any research that helps us reduce use of non-renewable resources or degradation of natural systems while supporting our standard of living is important.
What discovery do you hope is made in your lifetime?
A low-energy method of desalination to provide clean, fresh water for coastal communities.
We would like to thank Marcia for her time in answering our questions, outstanding work throughout her career and unwavering support of the sciences.