Marcia McNutt in front of the National Academy of Sciences building

Marcia McNutt on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences building, with Albert Einstein looking on.

Stephen Voss

Science academy's new president cleared many hurdles on way to the top

When geophysicist Marcia McNutt took over as director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2009 as part of the new Obama administration’s “dream team” of scientist-administrators, her first priority was to reorganize the agency to respond to real-world problems. But USGS scientists, many of whom had been with the agency for decades, were known for their resistance to change, so McNutt devised a remarkable strategy. She could not fire department heads, but she could assign them to a new and unfamiliar regional office, and the post she offered was her home town, Minneapolis, Minnesota. One by one, McNutt recalls, department heads retired or quit, leaving her free to set a new direction.

“We were living in geologic time, so Marcia took some getting used to,” says Bill Werkheiser, now deputy director at USGS in Reston, Virginia, who was McNutt’s associate director at the time. “She made decisions very quickly … we knew we had to change, and she made it happen. But she was always clear, you knew where you stood, and she was fiercely loyal to us.”

That mix of decisiveness, humanity, and negotiating skill served McNutt well both as a researcher and an administrator: In addition to USGS, she was the first female president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California, and, from 2013 until last week, the first female editor-in-chief of Science. This month, she became the first female president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the government’s premier science advisory organization. 

I bow my head to Marcia. She has a spine of iron.

Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli

None of this has been easy. Indeed, starting with college, hurdling obstacles has been a constant in her life. In the fall of 1970, William H. Wright, a professor of physics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, ushered freshman Marcia McNutt into his office with what she recalls as this observation: “You are here because you must have said something silly on your application about being a physics major. I’ve seen girls come and go in this department, but I’ve yet to see one graduate.” For perhaps the first time in her young life, McNutt was struck speechless. Class valedictorian at the all-girls Northrop Collegiate School in Minneapolis and with perfect SAT scores, she had chosen Colorado over Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, partly for its promise of closer contact with faculty … but not this sort of contact. “No one had ever told me I couldn’t do something,” she told me. “The one thought in my mind was, ‘I’ll show him!’”

McNutt went on to ace all four of Wright’s required classes and graduate summa cum laude with a degree in—of course—physics.  Years later, as a chaired professor of geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, McNutt declined an invitation to pen a testimonial about Wright in honor of his retirement. “He wouldn’t want to read what I had to say,” she says firmly. 

Wright wasn’t the last person to underestimate Marcia McNutt, or the only one to regret it. “I bow my head to Marcia,” says MIT physical oceanographer Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli. “She has a spine of iron.” 

McNutt is an expert barrel racer, an event where speed and control are key.

McNutt is an expert barrel racer, an event where speed and control are key.

Courtesy Marcia McNutt

McNutt grew up in Minneapolis and spent her childhood summers in a lakeside cabin, where reading was the default rainy day activity. She spent many a morning at a nearby farm, mucking out the stables in exchange for a chance to ride. (She later became an expert barrel racer, a rodeo event that entails galloping around a tight cloverleaf of barrels; speed rather than finesse is paramount.) But perhaps her most vivid memory of those summers involves an old Sunfish that an uncle dropped off for the family’s use. Too impatient to wait for an adult to teach her the fine points of navigation, she jumped into the boat and set sail. “I knew nothing, just pushed off from shore and in no time was out in the middle of the lake,” she recalls. “I could see our cabin, but I had no idea how to get back. Then I remembered reading a Nancy Drew story that mentioned something about ‘tacking into the wind.’ Eureka! I tried one thing after another, and somehow learned the difference between jibing and coming about. Eventually, I made it back to shore. After that, I was an experimentalist.” 

That experimental bent led her to physics and mathematics as an undergraduate and then to the geosciences, particularly the then-nascent theory of plate tectonics. It was a field wide open to a young scientist eager to make her mark: Major expeditions were often fully staffed and even led by graduate students, as many senior scientists were hesitant to embrace the new paradigm. 

While in graduate school at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, McNutt relished the opportunity to follow her research wherever it took her, especially when it led upstream from received wisdom. “I wanted to go places, see things personally, collect data, and revise on the fly,” she says. But rather than focus on what other researchers were studying—the boundaries between plates, where most of the action seemed to be taking place (earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, ocean trench creation)—she turned her attention to the plate interiors, and to a mystery that had thwarted other scientists: why so much volcanic activity appeared to be happening so far from the plate boundaries.

Presenting at the fall 1992 American Geophysical Union meeting, when McNutt was at MIT

Presenting at the fall 1992 American Geophysical Union meeting, when McNutt was at MIT

Courtesy Marcia McNutt

Sean Solomon, currently director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, was instrumental in recruiting McNutt to MIT in 1982, when he was on the faculty there. He recalls being impressed by the young scientist’s tenacity and drive, and by her ability to speak convincingly to both scientific and lay audiences. “All of us knew who the great graduate students were, and she was clearly among them. She was audacious, quite willing to go where others wouldn’t.”

Scientists had long noted that the ocean floor deepens with increasing distance from the ocean ridges, where new crust is created. But an area beneath French Polynesia posed a puzzle: Why was that swath of ocean thousands of miles from a plate boundary so shallow and its floor riddled with volcanoes? McNutt plunged in. Using sonar signals to map the seafloor topography, she discovered what she described as a “superswell,” a broad region of unusually shallow ocean floor buoyed by hot rock welling up from the mantle. In a groundbreaking paper in Science, McNutt concluded that the rock’s excess heat and extremely low viscosity had allowed the volcanism to readily pierce the lithospheric plate, liberating fully 30% of the heat flux from all hot spots on Earth in that patch of Pacific Ocean floor. 

This and a number of other discoveries brought McNutt many accolades, among them the prestigious Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union. Karen Fischer, now a geophysicist at Brown University, was one of McNutt’s graduate students at the time. She recalls the awards ceremony as a “quintessentially Marcia” experience. “She wore an Oscar[s]-style evening gown and looked incredibly glamorous,” Fischer says. “We were incredibly proud of her … she had succeeded in science on her own terms.”

McNutt made a practice of setting her own terms. She rode a red Honda 500 motorcycle to the office, always wearing fashionable footwear. She made more than a dozen ocean expeditions, and spent months at a time in Tibet and Tahiti. And she fought fiercely for her graduate students, once telling off another senior scientist for showing disrespect to a female member of her team.

For most of that time she was bringing up three daughters—Meredith, Ashley, and Dana—as a single parent. Their biological father died suddenly when the youngest, identical twins, were only 2 years old, and the oldest not yet in school. (In 1996, McNutt married Ian Young, an MBARI ship captain.) “That Marcia managed to hold everything together under those crushingly difficult circumstances seemed to us amazing,” Fischer says. “At a time when not all that many women were succeeding in science, she made it normal for women to succeed.” 

Geophysicist Carolyn Ruppel, who was one of McNutt’s MIT advisees at the time, has a more nuanced take: “She’s an amazing person, an amazing scientist, and has made significant contributions in areas that were difficult to navigate. But she was not a role model. None of us thought we could do what Marcia did—she played at a level well beyond [the level to] which the rest of us were headed.”

McNutt's ambitions went beyond academia. “As a scientist, working in a lab, publishing papers that only a few specialists in the field really cared about, it felt to me like being trapped in a box canyon,” she says. She determined that what she calls her “highest and best use” was not doing science, but enabling other scientists to do theirs. So she did what almost no one else in her situation would do: In 1997 she left a tenured position at MIT, packed up her daughters, their nanny, Ann, and Ann’s daughter, and moved to Salinas, California, (“salad bowl of the world”) to run MBARI. “Her leaving was a terrible loss for MIT,” Malanotte-Rizzoli says. “She wanted a new experience, and she deserved that. But geophysics suffered.”

On the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s flagship vessel in 1999, when she was the institute’s CEO.

On the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s flagship vessel in 1999, when she was the institute’s CEO.

Courtesy Marcia McNutt

MBARI, funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, was a relatively new venture with a lofty mission: to apply cutting-edge technology to inform and shape the future of the world’s oceans. McNutt took the reins shortly after Founding Director David Packard died, and, according to aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard, she quickly bridged the leadership gap. “One of my father’s most deeply held principles was to invest in people and give them the space to pursue their ideas,” Packard says. “Marcia built and expanded on that vision. She took a big risk leaving MIT where she was at the top of her game to come to what was basically a startup operation. And we were very lucky she did.”  

McNutt soon faced an unexpected challenge: The market plunge after 11 September 2001 sharply eroded the foundation’s assets. With fewer resources at her disposal, she directed staff to dig even deeper into matters of public (and funders’) concern, such as protecting the oceans from acidification and algae blooms and understanding the role the oceans play in climate change. Under her leadership, MBARI built a chemical sensor laboratory to detect ocean pollutants in real time, and grew an autonomous underwater vehicle program to make sample collection safer and more efficient. And, somehow, despite the economic downturn, it doubled its staff. 

While at MBARI, McNutt also served as president of the American Geophysical Union (2000 to 2002). And yet, once again, she wanted greater influence. So when Sean Solomon met with her in 2008, this time as chair of an NAS committee convened to recommend a new USGS head, McNutt listened. Joining the Obama administration’s “dream team” of scientific administrators, she decided, would be her next “highest and best use.”

McNutt wasn’t alone in recognizing the need to overhaul the structure of USGS. “USGS was full of ivory tower types each in his or her own silo—the seismic folks, geology folks, public health folks,” says her then-boss David Hayes, who was deputy secretary of the interior under both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama and is now on the faculty of Stanford Law School. “When Marcia arrived the agency was not, to my view, living up to its potential to provide the science needed to help undergird smart decision-making. She reorganized it to align with today’s science challenges—climate change, land use—and she did it in a remarkable way, with a sense of openness and respect.”

Her strategy of offering department heads reassignment to the Minneapolis regional office could have taken a toll on morale, but USGS Deputy Director Werkheiser recalls that “Marcia was a great boss, and I can’t think of anyone who had serious issues with her.” 

Heading a task force following the <i>Deepwater Horizon</i> disaster in 2010, as U.S. Geological Survey director.

Heading a task force following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, as U.S. Geological Survey director.

Fearn stock/Alamy

She needed that support to handle a series of jolting disasters in her first 6 months at USGS: major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a water crisis in California, an invasion of Asian carp in the Great Lakes, and a volcano in Iceland that disrupted trans-Atlantic air travel for nearly 10 days. And then, on 20 April 2010, came what McNutt calls her “Omaha Beach”—the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 workers, injured 17, and over a period of 87 days released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. McNutt says she and her colleagues were caught totally unawares, thanks in part to deceptive assurances from the oil industry that “you don’t have to worry about” oil escaping from deep-sea wells. 

Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes with Marcia McNutt knows this: She will patiently suffer fools but has zero tolerance for deceit. She rushed to Houston, Texas, with an overnight bag, expecting a short trip. She ended up spending 4 months in a windowless 2-by-3-meter office at BP headquarters, huddling late nights and early mornings with scientists and engineers, calling every expert she knew who might offer insight.  

Soon after her arrival she was tapped to lead the Flow Rate Technical Group charged with gauging the volume of oil erupting from BP’s well, a highly contentious issue. BP put the number first at 1000 and then at 5000 barrels a day. The group’s estimate, based on bits of high-definition video footage Congress had forced BP to share, was far higher: as much as 60,000 barrels a day. “Others—in government, academia, the press—were shooting from the hip,” McNutt says. “But we had the data.”  Pushing through the bluster of what she called BP’s “cowboy, get it done and go home” attitude, McNutt announced the technical team’s findings to the world. “Marcia was pragmatic, she understood what needed to be done to bring the stakeholders together,” Hayes says. “And she showed a surprising willingness to let it rip—she wrote some emails she shouldn’t have, believe me.” 

McNutt left USGS in 2013, many assumed to take over as head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  But she chose to remain in Washington, D.C., to take the helm at Science, where, among other things, she presided over the founding of Science Advances, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that reflects her concern with maintaining scientific integrity in an increasingly cutthroat publishing environment. 

“At Science, the paradigm is changing,” she says. “We’re talking about asking authors, ‘Is this hypothesis testing or exploratory?’ An exploratory study explores new questions rather than tests an existing hypothesis. But scientists have felt that they had to disguise an exploratory study as hypothesis testing, and that is totally dishonest. I have no problem with true exploratory science. That is what I did most of my career. But it is important that scientists call it as such and not try to pass it off as something else. If the result is important and exciting, we want to publish exploratory studies, but at the same time make clear that they are generally statistically underpowered, and need to be reproduced.” 

McNutt put her stamp on the editorial page of Science with some 60 editorials in 3 years as editor-in-chief. But she admits that she took a wrong turn on the Keystone Pipeline, a proposed route for oil produced from Canada’s oil sands—a project she regrets having publicly endorsed. “I would do things differently now,” she says. “I should have said that I would support Keystone ‘if this happens,’ ‘if’ being changing the process for extraction to make it cleaner, taxing the pipeline so that there is no decrease in the cost of oil, and imposing environmental scrutiny.” 

McNutt also regrets the sexism scandal that rocked Science beginning in July 2014, when the journal published a cover photo featuring a pair of transgender women in platform shoes and skin-tight dresses with their heads cropped out of the shot. Though McNutt publicly vowed to “strive to do much better,” that faux pas was followed by another: a Science columnist who advised a female scientist to “put up with” a male superior sneaking glimpses down her shirt. “Had I known, I would not have run that column,” she says, adding that the editor involved no longer works for Science. “Women have to decide for themselves what path to take in a situation like that, find a resolution that allows her to go on with her career and allows her to feel okay.”

Now, McNutt will have an even higher profile as head of NAS. “My hope is that she will be an outspoken public face for science, with a focus and emphasis on evidence-based decision-making,” says Diane Griffin, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and vice president of NAS.  

McNutt and family. Marcel Hoffman, her first husband, died suddenly in 1988, when their three daughters were not yet school-age. She married Ian Young (right), a research ship captain, in 1996.

McNutt and family. Marcel Hoffman, her first husband, died suddenly in 1988, when their three daughters were not yet school-age. She married Ian Young (right), a research ship captain, in 1996.

Ann Barrie

McNutt is more than ready to embrace the challenge. She sees her job at NAS as improving reproducibility and ethics in science, promoting women in science, and guiding the public conversation toward an understanding of science not as a bloodless series of facts, but as a structured approach to elucidating the laws of nature. “The academy has the job of providing scientific advice to government, and that’s a role that has never been more vital,” she says. “It’s not the role of the academy to say what the policies should be, but it is the role of science to project the consequences. Advice from the academy could be transformational to help the nation—and the world—do the right thing.”  

Once again, and perhaps not for the last time, it seems that McNutt has found her “highest and best” use. 

Colin Norman, who was Science’s news editor until 2013, edited this article.

*Correction, 22 August, 10:27 a.m.: This story has been corrected to clarify that the USGS managers reassigned to Minneapolis by Marcia McNutt were not based in Menlo Park, California.