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Marcia McNutt Bringing Her 'Intellectual Energy' to Science

Marcia McNutt

Courtesy of Marcia McNutt

Rumors of Scripps begone—geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who stepped down as head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in February, is returning to Washington, D.C., as the new editor-in-chief of Science. McNutt will take over the editorship on 1 June from Bruce Alberts, who announced his retirement last year.

McNutt is no stranger to Science: She served on Science's Senior Editorial Board, which helps set journal policy, from 2000 to 2009, an experience that she says will be helpful in her new job on several fronts. "It gave me a chance to know many of the editors and staff at Science, and to understand at a high level a lot of the decisions that the editor-in-chief is responsible for," including the balance of content between news and research or between different disciplines. "We anguished at many meetings over the readability of articles, over things like how much should be in the supplemental material, over trying to promote papers from developing countries. I'm sure a lot of those decisions and issues have not gone away."

McNutt also notes the many new pressures facing science publishing—such as authors bypassing journals entirely and posting their work directly on the Internet, sometimes as a way to more directly engage the public and provide more immediate connections to readers and promotion of their findings. "While that's certainly their prerogative, I believe there is a huge value-added that journals still provide," she says. "I can say this as an author—[there's] the value-added that peer reviewers have offered me, by helping to focus papers, finding places where I could have said things better, or had made errors." And, with scientists being busier than ever, she says, journals provide a vital service by sifting through thousands of scientific papers to find the best of the best.

But with the changing face of publishing in mind, McNutt says that one of her priorities will be to help forge more connections between authors and their community. The goal is "that journals become more than just a place where papers are parked, but rather becomes part of the rapid advancement of science."

Before she was appointed as director of USGS in 2009, McNutt was president and CEO of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for 12 years. Before that, she was a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was director of the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's (WHOI) Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Science and Engineering. McNutt says she plans to spend about 3 weeks a month on-site at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS, the publisher of Science.

"I think it's a great choice for a number of reasons," says Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., and former director of WHOI. "Having someone like Marcia will really make a difference. She has this intellectual energy, she's going to throw out lots of ideas," Gagosian says.

Her "energy and fortitude" will be especially useful when it comes to helping to articulate the importance of science and research to the future of the country—particularly important in these days of shrinking research budgets, he adds.

Gagosian recalls McNutt's tirelessness during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; she headed up the Flow Rate Technical Group, whose estimates of the flow of oil from the spill ultimately helped determine BP's liability. "She wanted to get federal and academic scientists together, and she came down to Baton Rouge for a day after working 16-hour days for like 23 straight days. She has that kind of tenacity to really push hard on what she believes in."