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Interview of Marcia McNutt by David Zierler on July 23, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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In this interview, Marcia McNutt discusses: current position as President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C.; mission, history, and structure of the NAS; NAS’s work on climate change and COVID-19; experience as a geophysicist; partnering with the National Academies of Engineering and Medicine; childhood in Minnesota; decision to study geophysics; graduate research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; research on ocean island volcanism in French Polynesia and Hawaii; early use of magnetometers, gravity meters, and seismometers in oceanic plate tectonic observation; development of techniques to take gravity, bathymetry, or topography data on continent and use them in inversion to learn about topography; work directing Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI); time at US Geological Survey (USGS) under Ken Salazar; professorship at MIT and collaboration with Woods Hole; details of leading an oceanographic expedition in the Marquesas Islands; spearheading structural change at MBARI; MBARI-created autonomous device to identify microscopic ocean life without samples; MBARI-invented deep-sea laser Raman spectrometer; being the first organization to put AI on autonomous underwater vehicles to map plumes; response to the Deepwater Horizon spill; fracking; the National Water Census; decision to become editor-in-chief of Science; procedures as editor; career evolution; becoming president of NAS; transition from the Obama to Trump administrations; opinions on geo-engineering; Decadal survey; Koshland Science Museum and LabX; efforts to nominate and elect younger scientists and underrepresented minorities to the Academy; making recommendations to Congress; collaborations with the private sector; communication with the public; and the 2018 Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s report on sexual harassment in academia. Toward the end of the interview, McNutt reflects on her career as both scientist and leader and the importance of integrity in research.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 23rd, 2021. It's my great honor to be here with Dr. Marcia McNutt. Marcia, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
Well, thank you, David, for this opportunity.
Marcia, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
So, I am the President of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Now, I want to ask a very broad question here, because the academy is something that a lot of people have heard of, but not many people perhaps out of the field of science understand what it is. So, just at the broadest possible basis, what is the National Academy of Sciences, how does it fit in with the overall world of science and research, and how does it fit in with the world of science policy in Washington, D.C.?
Sure. So, there are several ways to look at the mission of the National Academy of Sciences. First is historic. The National Academy of Sciences was founded during the Civil War, and actually chartered by Congress, and supported by President Abraham Lincoln. And the founding of the academy actually was triggered by a very famous naval battle, the Battle of Hampton Roads on the Chesapeake Bay, when the two ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimack, fought to a draw. And when news about that came back to the White House, the President realized that the future of naval warfare was going to be decided by technology. And he wanted the scientists on his side. So, as Congress was going into recess at midnight, he got a charter for the National Academy through Congress such that the National Academy would be a self-perpetuating body. It would choose its own members. But its purpose was to be advisors to the government on any issue in which science, technology, or evidence could inform better decision making, and be to the strategic advantage of the government.
So, that was the origin of the academy, and it got a huge boost during the two world wars, World War I and World War II. In both cases, science proved decisive in those victories. And the advice-giving opportunities for the academy were important and clearly taken advantage of. So, in one sense, one can think of the National Academy of Science as the think tank for the U.S. Government. But in another sense, we are the Supreme Court for science. Whenever there is scientific disagreement, or a disagreement maybe federally within the realm of science about what the science says about some issue, people turn to the National Academy to adjudicate that issue, and come up with the scientific consensus on an issue.
Marcia, I've been privileged to talk to so many members of the academy. It's always such a great honor when they're elected to it. For you, what is the ideal service when a scientist becomes elected to the academy? What are the kinds of things that they can offer to help both their own career and the broader field?
Sure. Well, there are so many ways that we engage our members in service to society. The probably most high-profile way is by asking them to serve on a study committee. These studies are usually requested by either Congress, by a government agency, or sometimes even by a private foundation, philanthropy. These studies have had a great impact. For example, the fact that smoking is no longer allowed on airplanes was the result of a National Academy Committee. The fact that the U.S. took early action on AIDS to stop the spread and develop treatment for AIDS was the result of an academy committee, and the U.S. got out ahead of the rest of the world in that and prevented a public health epidemic from happening. The academy issued a report on what would be the benefit to society, to the economy, to the nation, from doing a project to sequence the human genome, and the Human Genome Project grew out of that and became a multi-billion-dollar industry. So, serving on these committees is an important way for a scientist to, first of all, learn a lot from fellow committee members, but also make a great contribution to the nation.
A second way that we have our members contributing is by sitting on standing committees. We have standing committees that are advising government on national security matters, that are advising the government on education matters, that are at round tables on competitiveness, particularly with respect to China and how we can walk the fine line between collaboration and competition. So, serving on these standing committees is a way to constantly inject good science into the government, into the decision making of government policy, etc. And then, a third way that scientists contribute is through many of our international members. We have international members of the academy, and we have many members that participate in exchange programs, in joint workshops, whatever, with the Academies of Sciences from other nations. And this is a way to, first of all, benefit our own work, because there's hardly a problem that we address that hasn't already affected some other country, or is affecting some other country, or will affect some other country. And we also get a chance to help build science capacity abroad, which is of course a benefit of all humankind.
Marcia, you mentioned some public health crises in historical context. What has been some of the key work over the past few years on the current crises we're facing with regard to climate change, and more recently. the COVID-19 global pandemic?
Yes, well, I think there's probably no other topic that the academy has devoted more attention to than climate change. It was actually a meeting of the National Academy more than 40 years ago that raised the alarm on the threat of climate change, linked it to CO2 release, and projected what the change in average global temperature would be if we doubled atmospheric CO2. And that projection has proven to be very on target, because unfortunately, the growth in use of fossil fuels has been -- was accurately predicted then, and the response of the planet to that release was also accurately predicted. More recently, we've been trying to connect climate change to issues that people really care about. To connect climate change to things like human health. To connect it to infrastructure. Connect it to the economy. To connect it to changes in job forecasts. And also, to look at what the opportunities are in technology development to address climate change that will put the U.S. in a leadership position. So, we've really taken an all of society approach to the issue of climate change, because we really need to bring the issues home where they really impact people. How is our food security going to change under warmer conditions, and more frequent disasters? We've connected it to the change in natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, landslides and other issues, including wildfires, which are of course very important in the west this year.
In terms of COVID - COVID, like climate change, is a huge human risk, but climate change could be viewed as a disaster that's slow-moving, whereas COVID is a disaster that's fast-moving. So, we had to invent all sorts of new ways of providing science to the government on things like, how is COVID transmitted? How long does it stay on surfaces in an infectious state? What's the science behind social distancing? What's the science behind mask wearing? Are different kinds of masks more effective than others? And then, of course, with the vaccine, how safe is the vaccine? How should it be distributed? And in particular, how does society interfere with the uptake of vaccines? Whether it's through misinformation, whether it's through other sorts of vaccine hesitancy, how can we combat that to get more uptake in the vaccine? Normally, the academy would thoughtfully look over an issue for a year or more. We had to change our method of approaching these questions by turning them around in a week or so because of the fast-moving nature of the pandemic.
Marcia, I'm curious how your own academic expertise and training in geophysics might inform and enhance your responsibilities as president of the National Academy.
Well, I think that there are essentially two types, or at least two types of science. One is the kind of science that is very reductionist, that someone can ask a question and do a definitive experiment in a laboratory on a very simple system, and say, yes or no, is my hypothesis right or wrong, because everything can be controlled. Everything can be studied. Everything can be measured, and answers given. Many areas of chemistry are like that, where you can actually look at a chemical system very precisely. Some areas of physics are like that, where you have laws of physics that govern the behavior of everything from single electrons to the evolution of the universe. But geoscience, and much of biology, ecology, other fields like that, are not reductionist. They deal with systems that are so big and so complex that we can't even write down a simple set of mathematical equations to govern them. In the geosciences, we deal with timescales that are longer than an individual's career. So, we have to think long-term by our very nature. And we're often dealing with scales that can't be reduced to the lab. Whether it's looking at the generation of an earthquake, or the birth of a hurricane, these are not problems that can be reduced to a simple laboratory experiment. So, I think it is that sense of the long time and the vast scales that actually make geoscientists suited to try to understand complex systems like human society, and the nature of how we are addressing, or how we are changing climates. And also, how we are interacting in ways that either mitigate the pandemic or increase its impact. Does that answer your question?
Absolutely. Marcia, a question we're all dealing with right now, how have your work and responsibilities been affected one way or the other by the pandemic and the mandates of remote work?
So, I'm actually very proud of all my colleagues at the academy, of how really quickly and effectively they moved from an organization that prides itself on convening people. Bringing people together from anywhere, putting them in a room, and making them solve difficult problems. How we moved from personal convening to be able to do our work remotely, using virtual experiences where people convene from wherever they are, and get together on a computer platform. And we actually, very effectively, addressed the important issues of the pandemic, and all the other issues we were dealing with, by people working remotely. So, the bottom line is, I think that people did that well despite having other things they were dealing with. Children at home, sick relatives, whatever. People really rose to the challenge.
Looking forward, I don't think we'll ever go back to the same way we worked before the pandemic, where every little thing meant we had to bring people together. I think we have discovered that we can actually more effectively use people's time, and simultaneously reduce our CO2 footprint, by taking advantage of remote convening when it makes sense. On the other hand, I think people really are concerned that if we don't get back together fairly soon, or at least have the opportunity to get back when we need to, then a lot of the creativity will be lost from the organization. I know that I'm not as creative when I'm just in a room by myself, versus interacting with my colleagues at the academy. And the sparks of innovation don't come from setting up a weekly meeting with someone. It comes from that chance encounter where you're sitting in the lunchroom, and someone mentions something offhand that they're working on, and I say, "Oh, my goodness. I'm wondering if that can be useful for what I'm doing here." It's that innovation from chance encounters that I think we're missing. In addition, we've brought on a lot of new staff to the academy during the past year and a half, and those staff really have not had the chance to understand deeply the culture of the academy, because they haven't actually been part of us. They haven't met us personally. They haven't had a chance to interact with us. So, I think we do need to get back together, at least more than we have during the pandemic, but we will never go back to the pre-pandemic way of working, I don't think.
Marcia, to gain a sense of the organizational structure of the National Academy at the executive level, who directly reports to you, and then for you, who do you report to in terms of if there's a board of trustees or a governing structure? And then, additionally to that, who do you consider more broadly, in world of science and policy, your peers?
Okay. So, first question: who reports to me? Let me try not to forget anyone. I have my administrative assistant, Anna Bashkirova, who is wonderful, and keeps my life sane. And then, I have Ken Fulton, who is the executive director of the National Academy of Sciences. So, while my post is elected, and I get elected by the members of the National Academy, Ken is a staff position, and he has been at the academy for almost 50 years. So, he is not only the person who knows everyone and everything, he's a walking history of the organization, and is a huge help. Then, also reporting to me, we have a chief communication officer, David May. We have a chief diversity and inclusion officer, Laura Castillo-Page. I have my head of development, Alison Purvis. And then I have a chief program officer, Greg Symmes. And the chief program officer is responsible for all of the studies, workshops, convenings that we do at the academy. And then I have a chief operations officer, Lory Wingate. And the chief operations officer has oversight over HR, facilities, IT, and Finance. And then also reporting to me is Audrey Mosley, who is our chief council. Let's see if I've forgotten anyone. I think that's it. Okay, then, you say, who do I report to? Well, I directly report to the National Academy of Sciences’ Council. And the council is elected by the members, as am I. The council, though, provides my annual performance evaluation. They also help me screen requests for outside service so that I don't get overcommitted, and they are my partners in all decision making at the National Academy. Okay, was there a third question?
The third question that I added on there is who you consider in the science world, the academic world, the government world, who are your peers?
Okay. So, there are two other academies, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine, which are partner institutions to the NAS. And together, the three academies, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine, run the advice-giving part, the advice to government. There's hardly any issue we address that doesn't involve health, engineering, and science in some complex way. So, all three of us run that together. I am the chair of what's called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. And the other two presidents are my co-chairs. So, we certainly consider the other two academies to be our peers. Globally, there are other major academies that are very influential in their countries, and very well regarded. I would say, two of the academies we work with the most are the Royal Society in the U.K., and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is very large and has a lot of research institutes. So, those are sort of our peers. In terms of other groups that we do a lot of work with, certainly the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Eric Lander, the President's science advisor, leads, is one group that we are frequently in contact with. Is that the sort of thing you were looking for?
That's right. Well, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
Sure. So, I grew up in Minnesota. My father was a World War II veteran. He was a freshman at Harvard when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And he was only 17 at the time, but he lied about his age, waived a heart murmur, and enlisted in the infantry. By the time the war was over, he was the youngest commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. And he decided to leave the army because he knew that advancement prospects would be slim, given how many older officers there were. So, he went back to work in the family business, and worked for my grandfather, until my grandfather passed away at a fairly young age. And the family business, they had a plate glass company. So, they installed plate glass in new buildings and major construction projects. My mother actually did graduate from college. My father didn't get a chance to go back to college, but my mother did. And she graduated from the University of Minnesota. She was Phi Beta Kappa. Really, really, really smart, but was a homemaker until, actually, my father retired, and then she opened an antique shop, and got great joy from running her own business. So, I had three other sisters, so it was only girls in the family. And let's see – I…We had, as many Minnesota people have, a summer cabin that was on a lake out in the woods. So, I grew up canoeing and sailing and swimming. I had lots of animals that I raised out at our cabin. So, it was a great childhood full of adventure and exploration. We didn't have a television set, so on rainy days, I would read books, and by the time I think I was in fourth grade, I had read all of the books in the children's section at the library. So, they had to give me special dispensation to start reading other books in the adult section.
Marcia, did your father ever talk about his military service?
You know, he did a bit later in life, but it wasn't something that he wanted to talk a lot about. My father actually died from lung cancer just before cancer immunotherapy came out, and might have saved his life. But I know that he started smoking when he was in the army, because the GIs got free cigarettes. And although he quit smoking when he was in his 50s, I think it was too late by then. He did talk about some of the more fun parts of his deployment. He landed at Normandy one day after D-Day, and fought his way across Europe, and ended up in Germany, I guess. But he didn't like to talk much about that.
Marcia, in light of what you've gone on to achieve in your career. Are there any lessons that you learned from you parents about leadership? Particularly, succeeding as woman.
So, one thing that I certainly learned from my dad -- and, well, I'll also talk about school -- but my dad wanted a son more than anything. You know, I remember mom had news clippings where they put something in about how the family was expecting another child, and dad was hoping maybe a boy this time. But four children, and four girls. So, he, for example, would volunteer as a Boy Scout troop leader, and things like that, just so he could spend some time with boys. And I think of all the kids, he sort of decided that he wasn't going to let the fact that I was a girl get in the way of the things he wanted to teach me. So, as a kid, I would get up in the morning and go out in the duck blind with my dad to hunt duck, and I was always the one that would mow the lawn, and other chores around the place. He taught me how to use tools. He sent me to a car mechanics class when I was in high school so that I would know the basic workings of internal combustion engines. So, I later, then, had a motorcycle and did all the repairs on it myself, and things like that. So, I think that there were ways that dad defied gender stereotypes with me, and that made it easy for me to not pigeonhole myself. There were other things, too, like I went to an all-girls' school starting in second grade all the way through senior year. That was also a good experience because it wasn't until I actually got to freshman year in college that I ever heard someone tell me that there wasn't something I couldn't do because I was female. That never happened to me growing up. My parents never said that. No one at school ever said that. Because I grew up in this all-female environment, so anyone who was doing anything was female.
Was it a religious school or a secular school?
It was secular.
What were your parents' decisions in sending you, and I assume your sisters as well?
Yeah. So, I was the first to go there, and then eventually they sent my sisters there, too. The sort of proximal reason for sending me there -- actually, the elementary school in our neighborhood was a good elementary school. There was no reason why I couldn't stay there. But during first grade, the teacher said to my mom, "We can't keep her in this class anymore because she already knows everything that we would teach her, and she's just going to be bored and perhaps disruptive." So, they wanted to skip me a class and move me into the next grade level. But my older sister was in that grade level. So, my parents thought the worst thing they could do to my older sister was to have her younger sister in the same class. So, that's when they decided to send me to the private school so that basically I could learn more at my own pace, and be in a more challenging environment.
In light of your early interests in science, I'm curious what ways being in an all-girls' environment might have facilitated those interests.
So, I had this wonderful physics teacher. She taught physics and calculus when I was in high school, Mrs. Hill. And she just made physics seem so easy, and so fun, and so beautiful, because it was this, as I said, very reductionist science. So, I was convinced after high school that I would become a physicist, and wanted to go to college and major in physics for my life's work. I actually didn't like doing a lot of writing, and I strangely thought that by becoming a scientist, I wouldn't have to write a lot. And of course, that's most of my life right now.
Tell me about your decision to go to Colorado College.
So, I only applied to two schools. I applied to Colorado College which had a very good reputation in Minnesota. They play in the same hockey league as the University of Minnesota. And for a college of 1,600 to play in the same league as a school of 40,000 was pretty amazing. So, the school was known for its good academics and high standards. And then I also applied to Stanford because I'd heard a lot about Stanford, and it sounded like a cool place. So, when it came to the point of having to make the decision of where to go, the offer letter from Stanford said, "During freshman week, the freshmen will convene in such-and-such stadium for their first day of orientation." Colorado College's acceptance letter said, "On the first freshman week, the freshmen will convene in Shove Chapel for their orientation." And I thought to myself, wow, I've just come from a school where my graduating class was 36 girls. I think I'd rather be at a school where the freshman class can fit into the chapel rather than the stadium. So, that's why I chose Colorado College.
And it was physics from the beginning. That's what you wanted to pursue.
When did the specialty or interest in geophysics start?
So, it wasn't until I was just about to graduate that my advisor, my physics advisor, said to me, "So, what are you going to do next?" I said to him, "Oh, well, I have this great idea. My best friend from high school and I are going to be ski bums in Sun Valley, and we're going to bartend at night and ski all day." And my physics advisor said, "That is a really horrible idea." He said, "You will get used to having money in your pockets. You'll get used to having free time." Oh, and I said that after a year I was going to go to graduate school. He said, "No, that's a bad idea. You'll get used to having free time, having money in your pocket. And even worse, you could fall for some ski instructor named Sven and end up getting married and tied down, and three years from now you're wondering where all your dreams went." So, he said, "No. Do not go be a ski bum." But he said, "I don't think you should go to graduate school in physics." Because the hot fields at that time were nuclear physics and astrophysics. And he said, "Astrophysics and nuclear physics are getting to the point where they need such big facilities run by so many people that you are going to be in the middle of an alphabetical list of a hundred authors, and you're going to have a really hard time establishing your identity and reputation as a scientist."
So, instead, he handed me this Scientific American article that was written by John Dewey. And the article was the very first written document for non-experts on plate tectonics. My advisor said, "Read this article. I think you should go do graduate work in geophysics." I had taken several geology courses at Colorado College, and loved being out in the field. Just loved doing something outside. But I didn't actually major in geology because the whole field just seemed to arm wave, and like they were making things up. Miogeosynclines, eugeosynclines, it just seemed so ad hoc. But then I read this article by Dewey, and I thought, plate tectonics. Yes. That is the explanation. There are no huge geosynclines or miogeosynclines. All of mountain building is the indirect effect of these plates moving around a sphere. It explains why earthquakes are where they are, why volcanoes are where they are. I just thought it was beautiful. So, I just thought at that point that I'd go study geophysics.
Being an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was Colorado College's campus involved at all in the broader antiwar movement?
I would say Colorado College was -- now, I started there in 1970. So, this was a year after Kent State, and all of that. And there was a little bit of campus unrest at Colorado College, but I'd say very little. It was sort of this little peaceful enclave compared to the big state schools like Berkeley, and Chicago, and other places that were seeing a lot of demonstrations.
Now, based on this formative advice that you received, why the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for your graduate research?
So, when I was a kid, my grandmother on my dad's side had spent every winter in La Jolla. And I remember -- she died, actually, when I was in kindergarten, but I remember in nursery school and kindergarten spending a week or two in La Jolla with my grandmother, and going to the beach and tennis club for the Easter egg hunt and things like that, and I just thought it was a gorgeous place. So, I decided to apply there.
Was it specifically known to be strong in geophysics?
Yeah. So, actually, by the time I had had this discussion with my advisor, Dick Hilt at Colorado College, I had already applied to Scripps in physical oceanography. So, when I was admitted to Scripps, I was admitted to the physical oceanography curriculum, not into geophysics. And when I got there, I told them that I was thinking of changing to geophysics. And they said, "Well, why don't you first, at least, take some physical oceanography classes and see if you like them." So, I did, but it didn't change my mind about geophysics. And there really were some very, very strong scientists at Scripps that I worked with in geophysics. Wonderful, wonderful advisors that were so supportive.
On the basis of, physics has this binary between theory and experiment, by the time you entered graduate school, where were you on that spectrum? What kind of physics did you want to pursue?
So, I knew that I had an aptitude for theory, but I really liked to do science outside, as I said before. So, I ended up sort of combining the two, doing theory, but then my plan was I would do theory and then go out into the field and try to prove theory. I found out that it actually worked entirely the other way, that I would come up with a theory, I would do all the mathematics and everything, I'd write a proposal, get some ship time and go out to sea. And what I'd find is that the data weren't anywhere close to my theory. In fact, I would have to sit back very quietly and look at the data, and then realize it's telling me something entirely different. And I'd have to work out the new theory based on what I'd observed. So, in my career, observations always motivated theory.
Who ended up being your graduate advisor?
My graduate advisor was a man by the name of Robert L. Parker. He had come to Scripps -- he was only like, I think, maybe a decade or less older than me. So, he was a fairly young professor when I arrived. And I decided to work for him because I just liked his style and his personality. He had come from the U.K., from Cambridge, and was himself a theoretician but didn't dissuade me from also wanting to do field work to complement the theory. In fact, he was the kind of person who really didn't like to travel. He didn't even like to travel to scientific meetings. So, he was kind of happy that I was willing to travel and go out to sea and get data, and stuff like that. So, we worked well together. I'll say that Bob Parker himself is not a member of the National Academy of Sciences, but I think three of the women he supervised, starting with me, have all been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. So, there was something about him as an advisor that he was very supportive of women, and he really elevated the ability of those women to do world class work through his guidance.
And what was Bob's research when you connected with him? What was he working on at that point?
He was working on something called inverse theory. Inverse theory was this way of approaching science where you start with some data that someone's collected, and it is a very formal approach to invert that data to say, what are the most essential things one can conclude about the Earth from that dataset that are absolutely required by the data? For example, you could imagine you have data of variations in the gravity field over the Earth. It turns out to be a very non unique problem in terms of, what are the distributions of mass inside the Earth that can create that gravity field? So, inverse theory teaches you to ask different questions. For example, one question that you probably can answer is, given the upper bound on density of material inside the Earth, what is the deepest that certain mass anomalies could be and still produce that gravity field? So, as I say, it's a very rigorous approach to interpreting data, to put bounds on Earth's properties.
For your own research, what were some of the exciting trends more broadly in the field during the mid and late 1970s?
So, the big trends in the early to mid 1970s were to work on the plate boundaries. Work on the mid ocean ridges, the subduction zones, try to understand what's going on in these places of intense tectonic activity. So, for that reason, I decided I wasn't going to do any of that. I thought way too many people, very crowded, of everyone looking at ridge crusts or subduction zones. So, I decided that instead, I would answer questions that couldn't be explained by plate tectonics. Like, why are there so many tropical islands in French Polynesia and Hawaii, etc.? There are no plate boundaries there, so why are these areas dotted with young volcanoes that produced these island paradises when you can't possibly fit that within a plate tectonic paradigm?
What was happening in terms of advances with instrumentation, computers, satellites, that made your thesis research possible that might not have been possible even ten years prior?
Yeah. So, first of all, I'll say that when I was doing my thesis, it was just on the leading edge of some really big changes in oceangoing equipment. For example, magnetometers which were used to measure variations in seafloor magnetization which is caused by spreading at the ocean ridges interacting with the Earth's ambient magnetic field at the time. Those had always been towed at the surface, and now people were actually able to put them on vehicles that they towed near the seafloor to get a higher resolution record. The very first gravity meters were being built to put on ships. You can imagine, gravity measures acceleration, and when a ship is bobbing up and down, it's nearly impossible to distinguish accelerations from variations in mass on the seafloor beneath the ship, versus acceleration caused by the ship bobbing up and down. So, the very first gyro-type tables were being developed to isolate the gravity meter from the ship's motion. The gravity meter was always sitting below deck on the gyro table at the center of the ship, tilting and bobbing to exactly cancel out the ship's motion. Changes were being made in how we collect seismic images of the Earth beneath the ocean. Prior to me going to graduate school, there were just very simple techniques of letting out an acoustic ping and listening for the return. And instead, people developed seismometers that could be placed on the ocean floor, and then big pneumatic air guns to put a lot of energy into the ocean that would then travel beneath the seafloor, and return to determine the structure of the Earth beneath the ocean. So, a lot of technology was changing really rapidly, and I guess we benefited from all those changes.
What would you say were some of the advantages, or even challenges, of doing graduate research at the Scripps Institution, and not at, say, a more traditional university like a Stanford or a Cornell?
So, at that time, and continuing to the present day, if you wanted to do work in the oceans, you basically had to be at an oceanographic institute. It didn't have to be Scripps, but if it wasn't Scripps, it better be Woods Hole. And if it wasn't Woods Hole, it might be Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. But those were the three big ones, and if you wanted to get time on the big research ships and work with the people who were actually developing the new instrumentation -- I don't think Stanford or Cornell or any of those institutions ever contributed a new piece of oceanographic equipment that blew open problems. They all came out of the oceanographic institutions.
What would you say were some of the main conclusions of your thesis research?
One of the main conclusions of my thesis research was that -- okay, what I was about to say actually came after my thesis. In my thesis, I developed some techniques to take gravity data and the bathymetry data or topography data on the continent, and jointly use them in inversion to derive conclusions about how topographic variations either on the ocean floor or on the continents are actually maintained. What holds up the Sierra Nevada, or what holds up the Himalayas? Why are ocean ridges elevated above the abyssal plains? What about the island of Hawaii? All of them are actually supported by slightly different mechanisms. In the mid-ocean ridges, it's hot mantle material, which is thermally expanded, which holds the ridges up. In the case of Hawaii, it's a big load that was put on the seafloor, and the seafloor bent as an elastic plate to support the island. So, there's a big moat around it where it's made a dimple in the ocean floor. In the case of the Sierra Nevada, it's basically this big body of light granite that came off a piece of subducting seafloor, and because it was lighter than all the rocks around it, it rose to make big mountains. So, all of these were different, but I developed a technique and showed its application and how we could conclude how these different topographic features developed such high relief.
Besides Bob, who else was on your thesis committee?
Let's see. Bill Menard -- Henry W. Menard, Bill, was on my committee, and I did a lot of work with him. And then there were -- I think Freeman Gilbert was on it. I think that also there were some faculty members from UCSD in physics, I think, who were on the committee. And I think Walter Munk, actually, might have been on it as well.
Huh. Anything memorable from the oral defense? Any questions that were curveballs?
No. I mean, it was a love fest, my thesis defense. I don't remember anyone coming up with anything difficult. I do remember that my mom and dad came out for my thesis defense, and they brought our next-door neighbors, which was so curious. Our next-door neighbors were both physicians. I remember trying to think, okay, how am I going to give this thesis presentation such that not only my committee is impressed by it, but my parents and their next-door neighbors also understand it?
Marcia, to think ahead about many of your administrative responsibilities, at this point in your career, when you're starting to think about your next job and prospects, did you have any interest at all in administration, or were you thinking a more traditional faculty career at this point?
So, every single job I ever had, I loved, and I thought I would do that job for the rest of my life. So, there was never a time when I said, "This is what I want to do next," or "I want to go into administration," or, "I want to have a traditional university career." You know, when I was at MIT, I loved being at MIT. I loved my students. I loved my research. I loved my teaching. I thought I would be there for the rest of my life. But then, you know, some people called me from California and made me this great offer that I couldn't refuse. So, I went out to MBARI, and when I was in MBARI, I loved that job. I thought I would do that for the rest of my life. I mean, what fun to be at this place where you are combining science and engineering in novel ways to create new tools to explore the ocean in unseen dimensions. I mean, that was just so much fun. And I thought I would be director of MBARI for the rest of my life.
And then I get this call from the White House, and they asked me to come and be the next director of the USGS. I thought, okay, well, I've been at MBARI for 12 years. I'd been at MIT for 15 years. I thought, okay, well, maybe it's time -- my father did great service for his country, and maybe it was time that I should go serve my country. So, I went off to the USGS. I loved the USGS. What a great organization. What a dream mission. Ken Salazar was Secretary of the Interior. I loved working for Ken. He always had my back. He made my life easy. So, I loved that. But then, Salazar left, and I realized I had sort of done what I needed to accomplish there, and had sort of run my course in terms of things I could do for USGS, so I went to Science Magazine. I loved Science Magazine. I was like a kid in a candy shop being spoon-fed all these great, landmark papers every week, and writing editorials on whatever I wanted. It was wonderful. And then they called and said, "We want you to run for president of the National Academy of Sciences." I thought, well, that's also an opportunity, and maybe that's something where I could have a greater impact. So, you know, as I say, I never really wanted to look for another job.
I'm sensing a pattern here, a theme of your career. What was your first job right out of graduate school?
So, it was interesting. Right out of graduate school, I knew I was going to be defending my thesis in a couple months, so I started talking to my advisors about what I would do next. Freeman Gilbert sent me back east to interview for a couple jobs. One was at Harvard, and the other one was at Stony Brook. Stony Brook was nice. People were nice there. I just really couldn't see myself actually moving there. Harvard, I hated. The people were so awful. A couple of the professors were just outright sexist, and I just remember coming back to Scripps, and going into Freeman's office, and saying, "Don't ever suggest again that I go work with such awful people." So, after that we had to regroup. So, Bob Parker, my advisor said, "Well, you know, what would you like to do? What do you really want to do?" Well, at that time, I had a boyfriend back in Minnesota. So, I said, "You know, I'd really like to go home. I'm kind of homesick. I'd like to get back to Minnesota." So, Bob Parker said, "Well, a graduate from Scripps is on the faculty at Minnesota. Why don't you call him up and see if they have any opportunities or openings for postdocs, or junior faculty positions, or whatever."
So, I remember sitting in the office of the department administrator, which is the only place a graduate student could do a long-distance phone call. I remember getting in there, and I called up Clem Chase at the University of Minnesota. And I said, "You don't know me. My name is Marcia McNutt. I'm a student at Scripps." He said, "Oh, I know you. I've heard your talks at the American Geophysical Union meeting." I said, "Oh, okay. Well, the reason I'm calling is I'm about to defend my thesis, and I'm looking for jobs and I'd really like to come back to Minnesota. Does the University of Minnesota have any openings?" And he said, "Yes, as a matter of fact, you can have my job. I'm leaving." So, that was it. So, I took over for him. I spent a year at the University of Minnesota, and then I realized it really was the backwaters of oceanography. You know, for someone who was doing ocean sciences, there was just no one for me to talk to about it. So, about eight months after I started at the University of Minnesota, someone came up to me at the AGU meeting, and said, "Why don't you come back to California to the USGS?" And they had a really good marine group there, so that's what I did. I went back to Menlo Park, joined the USGS, and spent two or three years there, until again someone came up to me at a meeting -- it was Sean Solomon of MIT -- and said, "Do you consider yourself permanently a Californian?" And I said, "Well, I don't know. I guess not." He said, "Oh, good. We'd like you to come for an assistant professorship at MIT." So, that's where I went and spent 15 years there.
Tell me about some of the work at Menlo Park. What was the mission there?
Oh, yeah, so that was very interesting. In fact, that was kind of why it made it easy to leave and go to MIT. When I came into the USGS at Menlo Park, I was in the Office of Earthquake Studies. And all of the work I'd done about the strength of the plates, and holding up mountains, and things like that, was very relevant to try to understand the long-term strength of the Earth's crust and upper mantle, and how it behaved on geologic timescale which might determine where and when earthquakes are going to occur. So, all of that was very good, and I got a ton of papers out my first couple years at USGS. But then, what happened was this legislation called NEHRP, the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, was up for renewal. And there were many in Congress who were saying, "We want to see very specific examples of how earthquake prediction science has advanced.” And the problem at that time was there had been one very successful prediction of an earthquake. And that happened in Haicheng, China. And it was a classic case of earthquake prediction, where it was the northern Chinese winter, and suddenly they started having a bunch of foreshocks in the area. Frogs were trying to break out from their hibernation under the ice to get out of ponds. Lots of weird animal behavior going on. So, the Chinese Seismological Bureau predicted that there was going to be an earthquake in the Haicheng area. And they had everyone move out of all the buildings and spend the night in the fields in the northern Chinese winter. Nothing happened. The next night, they again, after more foreshocks, predicted an earthquake. The dutiful Chinese, once again, evacuated all their homes, spent the night in the cold northern Chinese winter. The earthquake happened that night, and leveled Haicheng. But the people were safe because of that prediction.
So, based on that, everyone thought that earthquake prediction was right around the corner. But all of the future attempts failed. There were major earthquakes in China that killed 500,000 people without a hint of a foreshock. So, at the USGS, the scientists were under pressure from Congress to show progress in earthquake prediction based on Haicheng. And my supervisor there was just going crazy with trying to follow up these silly leads. Oh, radon levels in wells can predict earthquakes, or geomagnetic anomalies can predict earthquakes. And there was no theoretical basis for any of this. So, I was being taken off the basic research I was doing to follow up on things like, can the number of lost cat ads in the San Jose Mercury News predict that an earthquake is impending? You know, stupid stuff like that. So, that was about the time that I got this inquiry from MIT, and decided, well, maybe I'll go there.
Now, during your time in Menlo Park, did you have a window at all into the wide world of science and government in Washington D.C., or were you more removed from all of that?
So, my theory -- and I think it's been borne out -- is that the further you are from Washington D.C., the less you know about science policy. That was something I sort of picked up then when I was in Menlo Park, and has only been reinforced throughout my career. The people who are most out of the loop in terms of science policy and Washington politics are the people in Hawaii. They basically are totally oblivious of what's going on. So, I think in Menlo Park, I was pretty much isolated from it. Every once in a while, someone from our office would have to do a rotation back in D.C., and we were always appreciative that they would sort of fall on the sword to go do that, and represent the interests of Menlo scientists back there. But we always knew that they were very happy to hurry back.
Besides being a new opportunity, what was particularly attractive, both academically and just in terms of a change of scenery, in going to MIT?
So, I think the things I liked about going to MIT were , of course, the reputation, and the colleagues that I'd be working with, but also the fact that MIT runs the joint program with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which meant that I would have access to all the great ocean-going scientists as well.
Was MIT known to be a center in the field of research that was most important to you at that point, or were you sort of coming on to build up that area of expertise?
So, MIT was expanding in that area. Certainly, you could say that I added to it, but I think most importantly, there were already some really good people there, like Sean Solomon who recruited me. And then there were several older people who were kind of on the verge of retirement that some of them were still very active, but some of them weren't. So, I think MIT was hoping to sort of rejuvenate the faculty in geophysics.
Tell me about the joint program in oceanography and applied ocean science and engineering, and how that came about between MIT and Woods Hole.
So, that was started back in 1960s, I think, when Frank Press was the chair at MIT. I'm sure I knew once the story of why it came about, but I think it was very much a symbiotic kind of relationship between the two institutions, because MIT, while recognizing that ocean sciences were really important -- they were important in biology, they had an ocean engineering department, they were important in the geosciences, of course, because two thirds of the planet is covered by water, and also, chemistry. The ocean is a big biochemical reactor, so there were chemical oceanographers. But they didn't really have access to the latest tools and the ships. So, by creating the joint program, it gave all of these scientists from many departments at MIT access to the ocean, and access to a bigger set of colleagues doing ocean work. For Woods Hole, it had given them access to students, because Woods Hole was not an academic institution. And it wasn't certified, or whatever academic programs have to go through in order to be accredited. So, by joining with MIT, the degrees could be jointly supervised by Woods Hole and MIT, but given under MIT's degree granting authorization.
Marcia, this is a question that's not so rooted in the chronology, because you've been involved in so many, but I wonder if you can walk me through the process of developing and executing an oceanographic expedition. In other words, what would be a research question that rises to the level that it demands this level of resources and attention? What are some of the challenges in putting together the expedition? And then, what is life like during the expedition?
Okay. So, what problems rises to the level is it if can be a very, very specific question, but that is so fundamental that the reviewers and the panelists think that this is something that can be definitively solved with some ship time. Or it can be something that's pretty expansive, with broad implications. So, I can give you an example of probably the most -- what would I say -- the constrained problem to get out onto seafloor. And that had to do with the Marquesas Islands. The Marquesas Islands are close to Tahiti, and there had been maybe two ship tracks ever through the Marquesas Islands for research purposes. So, it was basically a pretty unknown area. And the seafloor around Marquesas Island is shallower than it should be from plate tectonic theory. And that's true around a lot of island chains. It's true around Hawaii, for example. But the shallow area is exactly aligned in sort of tear drop shape with the motion of the tectonic plates. So, basically, the idea for why the seafloor is shallow in most cases is that these hotspots of molten material coming up from even the mantle, which produces the volcanoes, also heats up the seafloor and makes it expand thermally so that all of these active volcanoes sit upon seafloor that is higher because of this blow torch beneath it. And as the plate moves off the blow torch, it thermally subsides to form this teardrop shape. So, the exception to the rule were the Marquesas Islands, which were misaligned. We know what direction the plate is moving, but the Marquesas Islands, the shallow area of the seafloor was like 20 degrees off from where it should have been.
So, we set out on an expedition to understand why it's misaligned. And we started out by putting forward a hypothesis for why it's misaligned. And the original hypothesis we had was that the alignment is about 50/50 between the existing fabric of seafloor and the direction of plate motion. So, we suspected that maybe the hot jets had been sort of deviated by these weaknesses in the seafloor to form a shallow area that was off kilter. So, we were going to test that by doing some deep seismic to image the Earth beneath them, and to determine how much heat was coming out, and that sort of thing. So, we wrote a proposal, and I got together the people I needed for complements at the -- I got together a geochemist, who was going to look at the chemistry of the rocks to determine what sort of thermal processes were going on at depth. We had some seismic experts and gravity experts and everyone. So, we were going to throw everything we had. I also -- no, so that was it. So, they put in the proposal, the proposal's funded, we get our ship time.
We left out of Tahiti, and returned to Tahiti. So, life at sea, it's kind of like summer camp, if you've ever been to summer camp. It's kind of like summer camp because you can't go anywhere. You're stuck on the ship for the entire time. So, you're confined with a group of people like your cabin mates at summer camp. There's a very strict schedule. Everyone stands two watches, and watches are either from midnight to 4 a.m. and the noon to 4 p.m. watch, or you have the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. watch, or you have the 8 a.m. to noon and 8 p.m. to midnight watch. So, while you're on your watch, you literally have to watch all of the science instruments, and then you also have to take charge in accomplishing anything on the science program plan that is scheduled for that day and that time. So, maybe you're doing a dredge to get rocks from the seafloor. Or maybe you're putting out the seismic streamer to record sounds from the air guns, or whatever. So, you have to do all of that for your watch. And sometimes, if you're awake and more hands are needed, you might just go out and help even if you aren't on watch, because basically there's nothing else to do. They would have video and movies and things like that which were usually chosen by the crew and completely inappropriate. Or there was a place you could go to work out if you wanted to, but not a lot left to do. You did a lot of reading when you weren't being needed for something else.
Marcia, when you were chief scientist on several of these missions, what connected those particular research questions that might explain why you were chief scientist? What were some of the sort of, scientific through lines that might have connected these missions in your research agenda?
Oh, well, in every case, when you're chief scientist, it's because you had the idea, and you wrote the proposal, and you got the funding. So, it doesn't matter. I mean, there were a bunch of projects that I was chief scientist on that I had never actually done that work before. So, I had to invite other people to come help me do something, but it was just I had the idea that, gosh, we could solve this problem if we got this data. Now, who can help me get that data? But I'm still chief scientist because it was my idea.
What was the write-up like, the process of gathering all this data? Who were some of your key collaborators, and when you had something really important to share, what were some of the key journals or other media outlets that you would turn to?
Okay, so, first of all, you do a daily log while you're at sea. A daily log just kind of is a really detailed description of what happened every day, because sometimes you'll see something odd in the data and you'll need to go back to the log to figure out, oh, that's what happened there. We had to stop for a fishing boat, or whatever. So, the daily log is very important. Every ship has a data officer on it because the ships are funded by the National Science Foundation, and under the National Science Foundation policy, all of the data has to be archived in a data repository. So, there's a data officer that kind of makes sure that all its data is being collected, that it's all being archived properly, and they also do sort of rudimentary checks for quality control, too. So, that is actually done by professionals on the ship, which is helpful. But then, generally, we're analyzing the data, some of it anyway, in real time as it comes in. Some of it requires supercomputers. So, we can't do it until after we get to shore. But for a one-month expedition, it can take two or three years to analyze all the data. And as you start developing your conclusion from your analysis of the data, the first thing you do is present it at an AGU meeting. So, you'd go to an AGU meeting, and you'd give a talk about it, and that's your first chance to get some feedback from other people as to whether they think you've got a plausible explanation for what you saw, and that sort of thing. And then, after presenting at AGU, then you write it up for a journal. I published a lot of my work in the Journal of Geophysical Research. I published some of it in Science. I published some of it in Nature. Those were sort of the top places.
What were the circumstances of you being named director of the joint program between MIT and Woods Hole?
Oh, you know, I'm not sure that was necessarily competitive position. It was basically that one of the MIT faculty would always hold that designation as director of the joint program. And the faculty member who was picked was always someone who was active in the joint program. So, someone who had students that they were advising, who were joint program students. Maybe someone who had served on joint committees for the joint program between Woods Hole and MIT. Also, many of the MIT faculty would go down to Woods Hole every summer, and actually spend the summer down there working out of Woods Hole, immersed in the joint program. So, it was always better to have the MIT director, someone who was kind of a fixture of Woods Hole, knew all the people there, and was very interested in the educational program. So, that's why I was selected.
Now, in retrospect, in light of the much larger administrative responsibilities you would take on, I wonder if you've ever reflected on how the directorship in the joint program might have been useful training ground for you.
Gosh, no one's ever asked that question before. I'll tell you; I think running an oceanographic expedition was actually a bigger training in leadership than being the director of the joint program. The joint program, there are actually not all that many decisions to be made as compared to leading an oceanographic expedition where there are tons of decisions that need to be made before you even leave port, otherwise your expedition is going to fail. And so many on the spot decisions you have to make because the ocean is a very capricious place. Different things are happening all the time, and you have to be quick on your feet. So, I think that was better leadership training than necessarily the joint program.
And then what were the circumstances of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, MBARI? How did that come about? Were you aware of their work? Did you have any particular connections there?
So, a former undergraduate student who had been at MIT and graduated in geosciences, and then went to UC Santa Cruz for his PhD, he worked there. And he had come back to MIT to visit, and things like that. So, I knew of the organization from that connection, but I really didn't know much about it other than it was very young, it was recently founded, and it was out in Monterey. So, it really wasn't until -- I remember this distinctly -- I was at Logan Airport, and I was just there to change planes on my way from Europe to maybe Washington, D.C., or something like that. So, I was just passing through Logan when I called into my voicemail at MIT, and got a message that Lynn Orr, who was the chairman of the board at MBARI, wanted to speak to me about their search for a new director. So, I sat in the phone booth there -- these were the days before any kind of cell phone -- and I called Lynn -- I hadn't met him yet. I didn't know him. He was on the faculty at Stanford. But Lynn was married to his wife, Susan Orr, and Susan Orr was Susan Packard. So, she was a daughter of David Packard, who founded MBARI. And Lynn said that they were looking for a new director, and I had been recommended, I suspect, by Frank Press, who had been the chair at MIT when I first arrived, and was also on the board at MBARI. So, I agreed, that I wanted to learn more about it, and consider applying for the position.
So, Lynn sent me a bunch of information, and then did some checking around. And what I found was that MBARI was really this super cool place because it was internally funded by the Packard Foundation. So, the scientists there didn't have to spend all their time writing proposals to go out to sea. They actually had their own ship, had their own ship time, they had their own money to hire technicians and things like that. So, it sounded very cool from that standpoint, and also had this beautiful facility, and lovely machine shop, and everything else that you'd want if you really wanted to do first class oceanography. But I also learned that the institution had gone through a lot of growing pains as it was being established, and they had already had four directors before I was being considered. And that was four directors in ten years. So, I thought, wow, this is a lot of turnover, and I'd be giving up tenure at MIT to go someplace that's just an at-will employer, and the average tenure of director is maybe two years. So, that gave me some reason to pause. But I went out, and I talked to Julie Packard who was running the aquarium and also on the board, I talked to Lynn Orr, I talked to everyone out there.
And what I realized was that the reason they were interested in me is that MBARI is an institution like no other. It's not like Woods Hole. It's not like Scripps. It's not like Lamont. And the previous directors all had either been institute directors, or department heads, or deans, or whatever. And they tried to run MBARI just like their last organization. And they ended up setting up all of the wrong incentive systems, and the place just wasn't working. So, when you're at MIT or at Woods Hole or at Lamont, your competition to advance your career is not your colleagues at the institution. It's people anywhere in the country who are working on the same problem and sending in proposals on the same topic to the funding agency. But if you're internally funded like MBARI is, then it's a zero-sum game. And so, no one group can get bigger and more powerful without another group getting smaller and less powerful. And so, by not recognizing that, the previous directors had set up unhealthy competition inside the institute. So, the reason why they were interested in me was I had not run anything. I hadn't run anything. So, I wasn't going to come in and say it has to be run just like my former department or my former institution. So, that's why I was offered the job.
And I took it because at the time, Tom Jordan had been department chair at MIT for two rotations now, and so had timed out. He was going to have to step down as department head. And the dean wanted me to become the department head. And if there was one thing that's a rule in my life, I don't like to follow someone who walked on water, and Tom Jordan literally walked on water as department head. He was terrific; he was well liked; he raised the stature of the department; he was loved by his students and all the faculty and by the administration. So, I thought if I stay at MIT and become department head, I've got to compete with this prior performance, which at best I'll look okay and not screw it up, but at worst, I might not be up to the challenge. Whereas going to MBARI, all of the people before me had failed. So, I thought to myself, if I failed, people would say, "It's got to be the institute because everyone fails." And if I succeed, then I'll be widely hailed as this terrific leader because all the people before me failed. So, that's why I took the job.
In terms of the offer and in terms of your responsibilities, what was the understanding between how much of your time would be devoted to administration, and how much would be devoted to research?
So, MBARI would have been perfectly happy for me to use MBARI resources and start my own research program there. I decided not to do that, and the reason I decided not to do that is I didn't want to set myself up as competing for resources with the very people I'm supposed to be leading. So, I figured, I really didn't want to take ship time, engineering time, technician time, whatever, for my own work because that would send the message to the staff that I was not unconflicted decision maker who was just working in the best interests of the entire institution. So, instead, I continued to write proposals, and I did a few expeditions after that, and used the NSF money to write up the data, and that kind of thing, with collaborators. But I decided not to use MBARI resources.
What were some of the key challenges when you arrived at MBARI? What were the things that needed your attention immediately?
Well, the first thing that was really wonderful was I went around to all of the staff, and I asked everyone about what the mission was of the institution. There's a big brass plaque in the lobby that talks about the mission of MBARI that came from David Packard. And every single one of the staff members bought into that. So, I thought, wow, this is a great place to start from because everyone agrees on what we're supposed to be doing. But whereas the brass plaque said that the institute would create peer relationships between scientists and engineers to develop new methodology for the exploration of the ocean, I couldn't find anywhere a sense of that peer relationship. The scientists all had the outside offices; engineers were in windowless inside offices. Scientists were the lead investigators on all the MBARI projects; engineers worked for the scientists. I said to myself, this is what the problem is at all the oceanographic institutions, where engineers work for scientists. We need to elevate the engineers so that they are truly peers with the scientists. So, I started moving everyone around. I moved engineers to outside offices; I moved scientists to inside offices. I just moved people around until there was at least the impression of equity because of where the kind of people space people have.
Then I changed the proposal process -- well, then I changed the organizational structure. The organizational structure had a division for marine operation, a division for technical services, a division for communication and outreach, and a division for science and engineering that was always led by scientists. So, I said, "No, we're not going to do that anymore." I divided it into science and engineering, and hired a PhD level engineer as the head of engineering. And then I changed the way that MBARI selected projects by starting with the engineers and the scientists getting together at the beginning of the process, and the scientists putting on one white board all of the really fundamental questions about the ocean that have remained unsolved due to lack of technology to allow them to be addressed. And then, the engineers would put on another white board all of the exciting breakthrough technologies that either could be or were already being adapted to work in the open. Like microfluidics, artificial intelligence, DNA probes. Those sorts of things. And then, what we'd do is we'd match up the problems with a breakthrough technology. And we wouldn't just do whatever problems a scientist wanted to solve. We wouldn't just do the technology that the engineers wanted to develop. But when there was a marriage that a technology could blow open a problem in the ocean, that's what we would do. And I changed the way that resources were allocated such that the way scientists or engineers got more resources was by collaborating with more people in the institution. Not by taking resources away from someone else. So, those were the changes I made in that work.
What was the basic funding environment like at MBARI? Did David Packard set it up where essentially there was an endowment that could be drawn on indefinitely, or were there outside benefactors that you needed to engage with?
So, we basically had to engage with the MBARI board which had a lot of overlapping members with the Packard Foundation board. Julie Packard was on it. Lynn's wife, Susan, was on it, and I think Lynn was on it, too. And a bunch of other people -- a guy from HP was on it. And every year, we would have to go to the Packard Foundation and request a lump sum to support MBARI. And many people said, "Well, why didn't Packard set it up as an endowment?" You know, a portion of the Packard Foundation's endowment could have been given to MBARI. And it actually worked to our advantage that that didn't happen. And the reason why is that, first of all, David Packard left clear instructions in his will that he wanted the Packard Foundation to support ocean research. So, I felt we were on solid ground that Packard Foundation wasn't likely to abandon MBARI. Plus, it had invested in ships and buildings, and all sorts of things. So, that wasn't going to go away. But you recall, after 9/11, the stock market took a dive. And HP stock, in particular, took a dive. And had we had our own endowment, basically, we would have had to live with something like a 25% reduction in the resources we had to run the institution, at least until the portfolio recovered. But instead, the Packard Foundation protected MBARI. They made sure that we didn't have to do layoffs, or whatever. It did mean belt tightening, to be sure, but they protected us to make sure that even though their portfolio took a huge hit, that we wouldn't have to lay off our talented staff like that.
Now, in the middle of your tenure at MBARI, you're elected to the National Academy in 2005. I wonder, Marcia, if that planted a seed for your admiration for the academy, and thinking one day that you might be involved at a more sustained level.
No, that never occurred to me. I was shocked that I'd been elected. There was no one from MBARI who had ever been elected, even though there were some very distinguished scientists there. I had volunteered a lot for the academy on various study panels, and I think it was maybe the year before that, or two years before that, I was given the designation of national associate of the National Academy. And a national associate I viewed as not a member of the academy, but it's more of a thank you for people who give a lot in terms of volunteering. So, I thought, oh, well, this is what they're doing for me because I'm never going to be elected. I'm just being given this national associate as sort of a consolation prize for not being a member. So, that's why I was completely shocked the next year when I was elected. And I sort of thought, well, I'll certainly go to the annual meetings when I can, but it's all the way on the other side of the country and it really wasn't until I got to the USGS that I could regularly attend.
What were some of the key scientific achievements at MBARI during your tenure as leader?
Oh, wow. There were so many. How much time do you have?
What really sticks out in your memory?
Well, let me give you three examples from three different areas. One from biology, one from chemistry, and one from engineering. So, the biology one is we (Chris Scholin and his team) completed and deployed the first autonomous device in the ocean that could tell you what microscopic plants and animals are growing in the ocean without ever bringing a sample back to the lab, or doing any cultures. And it was based on sandwich hybridization. Basically, it was an automated device that we could put on a mooring, we could put on an autonomous underwater vehicle, we could put it on ROVs, we could put it on anything. Put it in the ocean, and it would automatically, on a schedule, take a sample of the ocean water, and filter it for its microorganisms, and it would then disrupt the cell membranes and release the genetic material, and then it could tell you what was blooming in the ocean based on the genetic code. So, the application that we had envisioned for this, though it ended up being used for much, much more, was that red tides are a huge, huge problem for the shellfish industry. Clam people, oystermen, will go out and bring in a harvest of shellfish, and then they'll have to send a representative sample to a state lab to be tested for pseudo-nitzschia australis, which produces a domoic acid which, if humans consume shellfish that's been tainted with the domoic acid, get very, very sick, and sometimes die. So, the oystermen or the clam men find out after they've already brought their catch in that it's contaminated with domoic acid, and they have to throw out the entire catch. It's wasted. But with this device, we can put it out in the ocean, and it's constantly filtering for pseudo-nitzschia autralis. And if it sees that toxin growing in the ocean, we can give the alert to all the fishermen not to bring any catch, because after the bloom is over, shellfish clean themselves of the toxin and are then ready for harvesting. So, no catch is wasted, no effort of the fishermen goes to waste, and no one gets poisoned. So, that was developed, and it's been used now all over the country for the blooms in Florida, and everywhere else. Plus, just to find out what's out there.
Then another thing we developed was a deep-sea laser Raman spectrometer. And laser Raman is a tool that's used to identify materials based on their chemistry by their Raman emissions. They're excited by a laser, and based on the vibration of the atoms, you can tell what the chemistry is. And we developed a laser Raman tool to go down to the deep sea that -- the easiest way to compare it is if you're a Star Trek fan, and you know the tricorders that the Star Trek team would go out and point at something on another planet, and they'd get an answer about what its composition is. So, this deep-sea laser Raman spectrometer could do a point and shoot analysis of chemistry, or precipitate, or rocks, or whatever, in the deep sea. And it was a way to determine what's down there without having to prepare a sample, collect a sample, bring a sample back up to the sea surface. Very often, when you bring it up to the sea surface, it's undergone temperature and pressure changes, which means what you have at the surface isn't what you had at the seafloor. So, developed a way to remotely sense chemistry, and it is something that probably only would have been done at MBARI, because the PI (Peter Brewer) who worked on it had put in a proposal for federal funds, and was told repeatedly that it was impossible, that it couldn't be done. And yet, we did it at MBARI.
And then, the third example, which is engineering, we were the first organization to put artificial intelligence on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Before, when autonomous underwater vehicles were sent out to the ocean, they would preprogrammed with a mission. You're going to go to this location and turn left. You're going to go to this location and dive to 300 meters. Then you're going to go to this location and do this. You know, whatever. What the AI did, as developed by Kanna Rajan, allowed the sensors on the vehicle itself to adjust the mission. So, instead, we would say on a vehicle, we want you to go out in the ocean, and we want you to use your chemical samplers in the AUV, to map out a plume of maybe some kind of toxin that had been released from a river. We want you to map out where this plume is. What are the concentrations in it? What are the dimensions of it? How deep is it? Where is it located? Once you map that all out -- you know, the AUV would fly along until concentrations got really small, and it would turn around and fly back until concentrations got really small. Finally, once it had mapped out where the plume was, then the AI would tell it, now go back to the peak of the anomaly and trigger your samplers to collect that toxin, and come back to shore and deliver your map and your sample. So, the way I look at it is it turns an AUV from something that you had to anticipate everything ahead of time, and you might waste a lot its time going places where there's nothing interesting, it turned it into a really smart Labrador retriever. So, just like a really smart Labrador retriever can go out and walk around a field until it detects the scent of a pheasant, and then go for the fowl and bring it back to the hunter, the AUV was acting just like that. Are those good enough examples?
Absolutely. Marcia, was the call from Washington entirely out of the blue about leading USGS?
Yeah, entirely out of the blue. I guess I knew -- because one of my graduate advisors, Bill Menard, had been director of the USGS, I knew that one way that the director of the USGS was recruited was the government would come to the academy and ask for recommendations of scientists to lead the USGS. So, I knew that the academy had this role. So, I got a call from one of the leaders of the geology section at the academy, who said, "We would like to put your name on the list going to the administration to be director of the USGS. And by having your name on the list, you don't have to guarantee that you'll take the job, but at least that you'd be interested in talking to them about it. So, that was the biggest surprise, when that came in. So, I said, "Yeah, okay. You can put my name on it, and that will give me some time to think." So, then it wasn't long after that that I got the call from the White House saying, "We really want you to come and talk to the assistant secretary and be a contender for this position." So, I went and talked to them, and they offered me the job.
Was the prospect of being the first woman in this position particularly meaningful to you?
You know, I don't think so. Most of the time, I just thought of these institutions that had never been led by a woman, and I get there, and I find they've got all these great women that are already there. It's kind of like, well, you have this great assistant director who's running your energy and minerals program, and another great assistant director running the ecosystems program. Why on earth was everyone thinking that a man has to supervise all these great women? It seemed bazaar to me.
What about President Obama himself, who had already established that he was unique among U.S. presidents for his deep respect for science and scientists. Was it particularly attractive to you to work in the Obama administration?
Yes. For example, Jane Lubchenco, who had already been selected to be the NOAA, she called me up and she was really encouraging me to take the position because she was so committed to science in the new administration. And Steve Chu, who was Secretary of Energy, I'd known him for a very long time. So, I knew that there would be many people in the administration that I knew and would work well with.
Did you know Ken Salazar before you started?
No, I didn't. I met him for the first time. And I'll tell you, when I went to interview, I really wasn't so sure that I wanted to leave California and be bicoastal, because there was no way my husband was going to leave California. And the job paid nothing. So, I was going to have extra financial burdens of having to keep a second place in D.C. And of course, no one in their right mind would ever sell a California house because you couldn't afford to buy it again because of Prop 13. I really wasn't thinking that this was a no-brainer for me, but I completely underestimated Ken Salazar's ability to talk me into something. He is so persuasive.
What opportunities did you have in this role to advance the broader administration agenda to put climate change policy front and center?
So, lots of opportunities. USGS is less involved in climate change mitigation than it is in climate change adaptation. And so, while I was there, we started a whole series of regional climate science centers, which were located at universities, often at universities in collaboration with Indian tribes, or with other sort of partners that were out on the landscape. And the purpose of these regional science centers was to take climate science and downcast it to that regional level. What can you expect in the southwest U.S. from climate change, and what needs to be done to make the area more resilient to climate change, in terms of the crops, the water, the land use, infrastructure, etc.? So, we set up these non-governmental research centers all over the country, and most have persisted to this day, and they have actually been quite helpful in taking very generic climate science and making it relevant to that region. We also did a big series of reports on carbon sequestration across the U.S. What is the opportunity to store more carbon in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, in the grasslands of the Midwest, in the bogs and bayous of the Southeast? That sort of thing. So, we sort of talked about what carbon storage is now. What are the threats to retaining that amount of carbon storage, and what are the opportunities to enhance carbon storage? So, those are a couple examples of what we did.
Marcia, where were you when you first received news of the deep-water spill, and what did you see as your first response to this crisis?
So, when I first heard about it, I was out in Centerville, Virginia, and I'd gone out there on a Saturday morning to ride my horse. And suddenly, I got this message that it was all hands on deck at Main Interior by noon that day. So, I had to just cancel my plans for the weekend and turn around and get into Main Interior. And that's when the secretary and the head of what was called the Minerals Management Service at that time -- before BSEE and BOEM were developed -- that's when they were going to talk about what was going on with this oil spill, and all these people had been killed, and there's a runaway well, and stuff like that. So, we talked about it, and we talked about various things, like what could the USGS do? What could the Fish and Wildlife Service do? What could the National Parks Service do?
So, the first thing I said was -- well, USGS had significant experience with the Exxon Valdez, and with Santa Barbara Oil Spill. And those people are still at the USGS, even though Santa Barbara was back in 1969, or whatever. And so, I had the staff immediately pull together all the lessons from those oil spills. What do we wish we had done? What did we do right? What did we do wrong? How is this one different, which will change that advice? So, I got to work on that right away. And then, the secretary seemed very interested in my experience from my many years at MBARI with deep water intervention, with the AUVs, with the ROVs, operating in depths of a mile or more in the ocean. So, then, by the next Monday, he said that he was going to go down to the gulf and survey the situation, and he asked me to go with him. So, I went with him. We left Tuesday morning on what was to be a three-day tour of Houston, Yuma, and Mobile, to talk to various groups about what was going on with the spill. And at the end of that trip, he left me in Houston to oversee the federal response. Particularly, Interior Department work on how to end the spill and mitigate its damages. So, he left me in Houston, and I stayed there for the next -- well, I got back at -- that was in late April or early May, and I got back in August.
What was some of your involvement in the ongoing legal proceedings to ensure that BP was held accountable for this crisis?
So, I had a pretty small role to play in the legal proceedings. One of the jobs I was given while I was in Houston was to estimate the flow rate from the well. And at the time we started to do that work, BP and NOAA had estimated that the flow rate was 5,000 barrels a day. So, I put together -- and no one knew how to measure the flow rate of blowout a mile deep in the ocean. So, we got together a bunch of different groups. Some were doing it based on reservoir analysis; some were doing it based on analysis of the microstructures within the plume that was coming out of broken well head; some people used other techniques. The one that actually worked the best and gave the most consistent results was provided by some of my friends from Woods Hole who outfitted an ROV with a sonar to measure the size of the plume, and then an acoustic doppler current profiler to measure the speed with which the material was coming out of the well head. So, they had a velocity, and they had the size of the plume. And with that, they could determine its flow rates. So, we revised it upwards from 5,000 barrels a day to 60,000 barrels a day. And that's the number that stood. So, most of my involvement in the legal proceedings afterwards was just basically to talk about the flow rates, and how we determined it. But I think that it's clear that the prosecutors were also interested to know to what extent BP had tried to obfuscate the flow rate of the well, and whether they had actually interfered in the attempts of my group to measure the flow rate. And that was hard to deal with, because of course, there were people -- the scientists and engineers at BP -- who were very, very helpful. But of course, then there's the leadership of BP that always had their attorney sitting there who had to be very careful about anything they did or said, because the attorneys were always going to tell them that whatever they were doing was not in the best interest of the corporation.
Leading the USGS, Marcia, what were some of your key takeaways with regard to fracking, both as an asset in the sense that it gives us domestic energy reserves, and as a liability because of its problems both with regard to climate change and because of the underlying seismic issues?
So, I think one of the big advantages of fracking was that it released natural gas from tight formations, and much of that natural gas actually replaced coal in our energy portfolio, and natural gas has about half the CO2 released, of coal. So, that was a clear advantage of it. It also, I think from an economic standpoint -- because much of the land for oil development is either offshore, so it's federal, or it's in public land, so it's federal, or it's Texas and Oklahoma with their leases in the hands of the hands of corporations or wealthy people. All of the shale gas that was in Pennsylvania or other places like that was mostly in small holders. So, it gave resources and funding to communities that otherwise were struggling. And if you look at North Dakota, with the fracking of the Bakken Formation, that brought in jobs and economic opportunities and infrastructure development that they had really not seen, and didn't have much in the way of opportunities. The two big disadvantages, number one is water usage. There's just massive amount of water being used to frack, and basically stream water, drinking quality water was being laced with toxic chemicals, pumped into the ground, and then by the time it comes back after it's been used for fracking, you've taken a beautiful clean water source and turned it into toxic waste that has to be disposed of somewhere. And the biggest problem was when they had to dispose of all this water that had been contaminated down these deep wells by injecting the water deep within the Earth. That's when they created the earthquakes.
Among your many contributions and achievements at the USGS, I'm particularly interested in the creation of the first National Water Census, in light of the fact that the western United States is in a mega-drought right now. What do you see as some of the long-term values that that water census will confer in the near and short term?
Well, an interesting story about the USGS is that one of its earliest directors, Powell, famous from his exploration of the Grand Canyon, a Civil War veteran with just one arm, he was the second director of the USGS. When he testified to Congress asking for funding for the USGS, he asked as part of his funding request to do a water census in the west. And he was turned down because the cost of it was going to be $35,000, which was this king's ransom at the time. So, the reason why Powell wanted it was he saw these massive rivers -- the Green River, the Colorado River, a few others -- in this area that was otherwise pretty parched. And when he was turned down, Powell actually predicted that without an adequate census of what the water resources are, without management, he predicted that even the mighty Colorado River would someday not even reach the ocean. And of course, he was right. So, it's sort of like trying to fix a problem that Congress didn't deal with back in Powell's day by doing this National Water Census. Of course, it can't be done just once because of variability. Later monitoring of the flow on the Colorado River showed that at the time that all the Colorado River allocations were handed out was at a time of unusual high flow historically for that river. So, it's something that we have to keep doing all the time. We have to monitor it, and we have to learn to live with it.
What were the circumstances surrounding your decision to step down?
So, I think as I already said, Salazar took me aside and said that he was going to step down as secretary. And I didn't know at that time who the new secretary would be, but I really liked working with Salazar. I really thought that nothing ever surprised me because he always had my back. He made sure that science had a seat at the table. I wasn't sure what the situation would be with the new secretary, and I really also felt like there was this big list of things that I had accomplished, that I was really excited about, and that I had done pretty much everything that I had put on my list that I wanted to do when I first arrived. So, that was all sort of mission accomplished. And then finally, I was really missing my family. The federal regulations on travel are really, really, really stringent, so that if I had been in L.A. on a Friday afternoon talking at an earthquake conference, I could not buy my own plane ticket and fly up to Monterey to see my family for the weekend, and fly back to L.A. and pick up a government ticket back home, because that was considered that I would have benefited from the government travel for a cheaper fare to see my family. So, I would instead have to fly all the way back to D.C., and then get another plane ticket to go out to the West Coast and back. Of course, by that time, my schedule is so busy there's no time to do extra travel like that. So, I was seeing, maybe, my family, once every couple of months. And that was just tough.
It was getting old.
How did the opportunity at Science come about?
So, I had already announced that I was leaving USGS, and when that word got around, I started getting calls of people wanting me to do another thing. And there's no way, when you're director of the USGS, that you could look for your next job before you'd actually resigned your current one, because the ethics just wouldn't allow it. You know, if I were being considered for -- one thing was they wanted me to apply to be the director at Scripps. Well, it would automatically create a conflict of interest for anything with all of UCSD that the USGS was doing. And I just didn't want to do that to my staff or to anyone else, just suddenly add conflicts of interest. So, that's why I resigned first. And then I started getting these calls. One was for the director of Scripps, and I got a call from someone on the search committee at Science about becoming the editor in chief there. So, I had some decisions to make, and I thought Science sounded like the most interesting.
Did you know that the open access issue was one that was sort of rise to the top of your agenda beforehand, or did that come only after you started?
You know, I don't remember that as being clearly on my agenda. I know when I went to interview for the position, what I talked more about was research integrity, and about the issues of papers in biomedical research not replicating, and about conflicts of interest and stuff like that. And I said that I thought Science really needed to be an international leader in addressing the issues of research integrity, because otherwise we were going to lose the support of the public. And I remember Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS, told me later that when I said that in the interview, he was really skeptical. He said, "I was really skeptical that that was really a thing, but you were right. And it's a good thing that you got ahead of it early."
What were some of the big learning curves just being in a journalistic environment for you?
Huh. You know, I think it was less of a learning curve than it would have been simply because for years -- before I went to USGS. I had to resign when I went to USGS. But for years, while I was at MBARI and maybe even before -- no, I think while I was in MBARI was when I first went on -- I was on an advisory board for Science that consisted of outside academics across all fields, and was something that Don Kennedy started when he was editor in chief for Science. He wanted to have an annual meeting with all the editors and with outside advisors to talk about things like, what papers did we accept that we shouldn't have? What papers didn't we get that we wish we had? What are the hot fields? Are our distribution of editors appropriate? What about our news? What about our opinion pieces? What about our summaries? What new features should we be offering? What features are going to add value? That kind of thing. And I had sat on that committee for a couple editors in chief. For Kennedy, and then for Bruce Albert, and then I finally had to step down. But that really gave me a total leg up on how Science operates. So, I don't think it was really -- I'll tell you, the one thing that I had to learn a lot more about than perhaps I ever really thought I'd need to know, or perhaps even wanted to know, was just about all the backend of publishing. You know, creating the HTML and posting the HTML to HighWire Press, and all this kind of stuff about just how you take an accepted manuscript and actually publish it.
Given the prestige of Science and the fact that everybody reads it -- it really sets the tone -- what responsibilities did you see in terms of making sure that the best possible research was getting its place in the pages?
Well, basically, every Tuesday morning we'd have a meeting of all the editors, and the editors would all present one or two of the most exciting papers that they were pending. And pending means all the reviews are in, all the T's are crossed, and the I's are dotted, they're about to accept it for publication, but this is the last chance for someone to raise a red flag. So, that Tuesday meeting was really, really important to just make sure that all the difficult questions had been asked. Is this new technique really bonafide? Has it been validated? That kind of thing. Or what about this other view to this social science paper? Are we going to run afoul by not having other voices in this? That sort of thing. So, I think that was important. But I think the thing I did most at Science was push for the purity of the literature by making sure that papers that were suspect had “editorial expressions of concern”, and once we had a pretty good indication that the work was actually flawed, actually doing editorial retractions even if the authors refused to retract it. So, I really pushed for the journal to be more upfront in making sure that polluted papers didn't sit around forever while university processes are going on and on and on.
Marcia, another experience question, looking ahead to the National Academy, in what ways did your tenure at Science give you a vantage point of science at the broadest possible level in a way that might have been valuable for your presidency at the National Academy?
So, I think that was pretty pivotal. I think that first of all, going from MIT to MBARI was a broadening experience, because now I have purview over lots of engineering, and on marine biology, and marine chemistry, and things like that which were topics that were more directly under my control than some educational aspects for the joint program. So, MBARI got me to see things more broadly across all of the sciences. And then USGS expanded that even further because, of course, in USGS, there's coastal science, but they also do a lot of land science. You know, energy production, and mapping, and all of the natural hazard, and things like that. And then, finally stepping into Science, it was everything from astrophysics to the smallest organisms and properties of matter. So, that was, I think, pretty important. And maybe not necessarily running the academy day to day, since I had lots of people below me that's their main expertise. But I think more in giving the members confidence that I wasn't going to come in and be partial to just one skill. Because the way that the Academy had always elected its president is it has gone back and forth between a life science, and a physical science. And the previous president of the NAS was Ralph Cicerone, who was also a physical scientist. So, the life scientists were going to raise a ruckus that it was their turn for the presidency. And I think the fact that I have this experience with Science helped people accept that I probably wasn't going to be in any way partial to physical sciences, or even environmental science over all of science.
Where were you when you got the call, and how out of the blue was it?
I was at Science. I was sitting at my desk, and Barbara Schaal, who was the head of the search committee, called me and said, "Would you be willing to interview for the position?" And I just said to Barbara, "Barbara, you have all of the academy to choose from. I am sure that you have many more qualified people than me. But I can't see any downside in interviewing for this. I'm sure I'll learn a lot more about the academy than what I do now, and it'll probably be a good experience." So, I agreed to interview. So, I did the interview, and I don't even remember the interview. I don't remember that. All I remember is they called me up later and offered me the position. You know, subject to, I had to go through this lengthy background check, and all this other stuff.
And again, this is across the backdrop that you're happy at Science, and you're not expecting that anything will actually come of this.
Right. And not only that, but after my experience with the USGS, I had negotiated this great deal with Science that I was there in the office for three weeks every month, and I worked remotely from California for one week every month. So, I came out here on a Friday night and went back on Monday morning after spending a full week in California. And that made a -- you know, I could reconnect with my family and everything. I was loving that. And I just though, running the NAS, they have all these big buildings in D.C., huge staff -- much huger staff than I had had at Science -- and no one's working from California, with the exception of the Beckman Center in Irvine, but very few staff work out of there. So, I just thought, well, is this going to really get in the way of this wonderful time I've had to reconnect with my family? So, that was a concern, but I decided it probably wasn't the right time to bring that up with the council of the academy because, at least at Science, they had always had editors who were remote. And they were actually tickled pink that I was going to spend three weeks in D.C. They had never had an editor who spent three weeks in D.C. So, they were over the moon excited about that. So, I waited like a year or two, and then I brought up to council, can I start spending more time in California? And I said, "You know, the deal I had at Science was a week per month." And they said, "Oh, fine. Sure, go ahead. You're the most responsive president we've ever had. You can work remotely." So, that's what I did. So, I came up for re-election -- I'm about to be considered for re-election in January, and they said, "We really want you to run for a second term." I said, "Well, you know, I really don't know if I have it in me to do a second term. But if you'll let me spend more time in CA, then I could probably do a second term." So, they said, "Oh, fine. Whatever you need to do."
Marcia, we'll keep the conversation as apolitical as possible, but the transition, particularly from a science policy perspective, from the Obama to Trump administrations, that must have been quite interesting to navigate.
So, I have to say, it was quite a surprise to only be in my job four or five months in 2016 when the 2016 election occurred, and Trump was elected. And whereas Obama had taken a very science-centric view to decision making, Trump was obviously going to take a much more pro-business approach to decision making. And we were particularly troubled when he was so slow to come forward with any science appointments. And many of the positions that had been held by top scientists were actually -- he was promoting -- like, the science advisor at USDA, he had proposed a radio talk show host. So, there were just all these indicators that he didn't even really want scientists in science positions. I think we were very fortunate that France Córdova was still at NSF, and her position is out of synch with the election so that she still had years left, and that Francis Collins was retained at NIH. He had a lot of support from the fundamental Christian community because of his strong religious faith. So, we knew that we could continue, and the leadership of the biggest science agencies were not going to be much different. That wasn't true, of course, with EPA, it wasn't true with Interior, where there were lots of science struggles.
Marcia, I'll ask a question both on a technical level with regard to your expertise, and your leadership of NAS. That is, your thoughts on the efficacy and sensibility of geo-engineering, both as an emergency response to climate change, and also the pause it might give you, given the fact that all of the unknown consequences that might happen if we pursue this.
So, I chaired the 2015 report from the National Academy on geo-engineering, or solar radiation management, albedo management -- whatever you call it. And that was a learning experience for me, because there were lots of very distinguished atmospheric scientists, and climate scientists, and carbon budget people, and stuff like that on it. So, the sort of conclusion we came down on was that any kind of attempt to change climate by putting particles in the stratosphere should only be a last resort. We called it the Hail Mary. When you're backed against the wall -- people are starving, their harvest failed, natural disasters are wreaking havoc -- when you get to that point, and you know that any other approach is going to take too long, or even if you've already had some luck, but it was too little, too late, that geo-engineering should be something we know more about in order to make an informed decision. Because we said that the maturity of the science around geo-engineering -- both the positive effects and unintended negative consequences were so poorly understood that it would be impossible in a Hail Mary situation to know if the cure is worse than the disease. If geo-engineering actually made things worse by changing rainfall patterns in ways that the society can't handle, then maybe you haven't done anything positive. So, that's why we suggest more research. We also suggested -- and this is now starting to happen -- that there be governance set up, because right now, there are no international treaties or any other agreements that would prevent a lone actor from geo-engineering the planet. Someone could do it, and there would be no way out. So, we said we need a governance mechanism that says what's allowed, what's not allowed, how do you decide whether something can be allowed or not? That sort of thing.
Marcia, I'm sure you've heard the criticism. Some feel that being elected to the academy should happen for scientists, in certain cases, earlier in their careers. How do you respond to that?
Well, I think everyone in the academy agrees with that. But here's what happened. Basically, in the 1960s and '70s and continuing into the '80s and '90s, the size of the scientific establishment grew minimum by a factor of four in every discipline, and in some disciplines, by a factor of infinity, because they were basically new fields that were completely developed. So, if you look at the overall size of the standing scientific workforce, it increased by a factor of ten, or something like that. During that same period, the number of people elected to the National Academy of Sciences only increased by, I think, 30% or something. So, you basically ended up with this unmet demand situation where there were now so many more excellent scientists who were candidates for election to the academy, and so few spots, that supply and demand took over. And whereas it used to be back in the 1960s that someone who is simply really up and coming, and very promising, and bright, and working on good things, to get elected to the academy, now you had to wait until you were in your late 50s, and had already walked on water before you could be elected. So, that was the problem. We tried all sorts of incentives for electing younger members, but what we were finding is we were running into this situation where someone would come up with a really bright, promising young person, who was in his late 40s, say, and that person's advisor, who is even better and more distinguished, had not yet been elected. So, it was just a problem. So, finally, just in the last two years, the home secretary Sue Wessler and I, got through the academy a change in the bylaws that allowed us to elect significantly more people every year. It had been down to 70, and increased it to 120. So, now, we can start to clear up some of the backlog of people that were waiting in the wings for decades to be elected, and then start to elect young people as well.
As we talked earlier in our conversation about some of the key ways that members can perform service on behalf of the national academy, one of those ways, of course, is on the Decadal Survey. I wonder if you can reflect on some of the value in taking such. long-term approach within all of these fields.
So, the Decadal Surveys are one of the sort of, branded, premier products that the academy puts out because they widely consult the community. They also bring in people from allied fields that could potentially change the direction of a certain discipline. And they do some pretty deep thinking about what's the future, and what do we need to be doing now to be prepared for the future? Do we need different funding mechanisms? Do we need different facilities? Do we need different educational programs? That sort of thing. So, I think these Decadal Surveys have been very -- not just popular, but influential.
Marcia, what's your perspective on one of the key divides? Obviously, they're related, but the divide between basic science and applied science, and the way the National Academy can support both?
I actually don't like this linear analysis of what is applied science and what is basic science, because there's applied science which has benefited basic science, and vice versa. I rather like to think of it as a two-dimensional plane, where one dimension is, how innovative and forward thinking is the work? That's the vertical axis. And then the horizontal axis is, what's inspiring the work? Is it to solve an immediate use-inspired problem, or is it simply to uncover the nature of the physical world and answer fundamental questions? So, with these two axes, it provides four quadrants. One quadrant is research that is really innovative, but is just answering basic fundamental questions about the physical world. And that, people call the Bohr quadrant after Niels Bohr. And there are a lot of members from the National Academy that fill that quadrant.
And then, if you go over to the left of that, there's the upper left-hand quadrant, which is research that is also innovative, and discovering new things, but is use-inspired. That is called Pasteur's quadrant, because Pasteur obviously was trying to do some basic research to help with disease, and he discovered penicillin. But in doing so, he discovered so much more about basic microbiology. So, there are a lot of people in the academy who are also from Pasteur's quadrant. Then, of the two lower quadrants, there's work that is not very innovative, but is very useful to society. That's called Edison's quadrant, because Edison, of course, did great work that led to so many of the modern communication and voice detectors, the gramophone, etc. But Edison didn't do the basic research that Maxwell and others did that enabled his work. There are not a lot of members in the National Academy of Sciences from Edison's quadrant, but there are many members from the National Academy of Engineering who are in Edison's quadrant. That's sort of the sweet spot for whether you're in NAE or NAS. Edison's quadrant is NAE; Pasteur's quadrant is NAS. And then, the other quadrant is work that is not innovative, and doesn't have any societal use. No one wants to be in that quadrant. Everyone would fight to get out of that quadrant, and no one from that quadrant has been selected to be in NAS or in NAE.
Marcia, I'm curious to learn more about LabX, and more broadly, your efforts to spearhead making the National Academy, and science in general, more accessible to as many people in the broader public as possible.
Sure. So, LabX grew out of a wonderful gift from the Koshland family to the NAS. Dan Koshland had been an NAS member. He had been a former editor-in-chief of Science, one of the very best. And I believe his family was connected to Levi Strauss. So, Dan had resources that most scientists don't have. And he made a gift to the National Academy to found what was called the Koshland Science Museum. In our building over on 5th Street, we have space for this museum that talked about DNA, and talked about other important things, climate change. And it was a regular stop on sort of the tour buses through D.C. They would point out to people that there was this cool science museum there. Well, after a number of years, we became concerned about whether we were actually doing the most justice to Dan's gift, because the funding wasn't enough to refresh the exhibits often enough, and our building over on 5th Street was enough off the beaten path -- it's not the Mall, or whatever -- so, it's enough off the beaten path that it just didn't get the visitor-ship that we would hope. So, we decided to turn the Koshland Science Museum into a public engagement program that would actually take advantage of the internet in order to reach broader audience. So, that is the history behind the forming of LabX, which grew out of this science museum, but with the same goal. Basically, to demystify science for popular audiences, and help them understand how it really is essential in their daily lives. And LabX has since just really taken off. It has created all these really, kind of, events, either digital or even some in person, that appeal to young adults, to people between like 18 and 30 or so, and in a fun and engaging way. So, it's really doing great things.
Relatedly, Marcia, in bringing science out to as many people as possible, it's a two-way-street, in so far as making STEM more diverse, and encouraging underrepresented voices to pursue careers in science. What opportunities have you had to enhance and support that overall project?
So, let me put it this way. I think it's hard for the National Academy to have direct impact on high school students deciding to choose careers in STEM. While our members might be educators in colleges and universities, we don't really have any insight or control over who gets admitted, and what kind of programs they have to encourage a more diverse STEM workforce. But one thing we did decide fairly recently is that we can lead from the top. And I think for too long, there was this belief that, particularly in terms of underrepresented minorities, that there's just not a plethora of these people coming up, and that's why there's so few in the academy. So, I flipped that around. I said, "No, that's not the way we should look at it. We should look at it by saying there probably will never be a plethora of underrepresented minorities choosing science unless they have role models, unless they can see people who look and talk and come from the same places as they did, who have reached the highest echelon of recognition for science in America."
So, that really changed the thinking at the academy of our efforts to find and nominate and elect underrepresented minorities to the academy. Last year, I think we elected more underrepresented minorities than we had in the previous five years combined, or something like that. So, all it takes is, I think, bringing it the right way. And then, once these people get into the academy, they're fabulous. They think of new initiatives we should be doing that -- I mean, the perfect example is when the academy decided much earlier that it was not giving a fair shake to women who were increasing in numbers in academia. So, there were efforts to increase the elected women. Women came into the academy, and they came up with all these great programs that needed to be done that no one had thought to do. For example, the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, is the group that fostered the writing of that pivotal academy report that was published in 2018 on sexual harassment in academia, that basically has changed universities across the country, and even around the world in terms of protecting women from sexual harassment. The same thing is now happening for underrepresented minorities with committees within the academy addressing this issue, getting the science behind it, and getting reports out that are going to change the racism in our colleges and universities.
On the question of policy, given all the policy studies and reports that the academy produces, what have you found to be some of the most efficacious way to ensure that these reports get in the hand of the decision makers in government that need to see them?
So, often these reports are actually requested by Congress. So, Congress is sitting there waiting for them. What we find is the first thing we have to do is get the reports done faster, because when reports take too long, the people who ask for them aren't even there anymore. So, then you've got a big problem. The number one most efficacious thing you can do is get our advice out sooner, such that the people who ask for it are still sitting there waiting for it. So, that, I think, is number one. Number two is we've been working with our committees on trying to make their recommendations more decision ready. There are ways of saying recommendations that even the people who asked for the report kind of scratch their heads and say, "How would I do that?" But if you go the extra miles to define who would be the partner, what's the needed legislation change, what's the needed funding if any? You know, to actually make sure that people understand exactly what it entails. And often, decision makers want to be told what needs to happen, and not how to get it done. So, also not crossing that line of being so prescriptive that it takes away the decision maker's latitude for figuring out how to accomplish it.
Marcia, what opportunities have you seen to further integrate the National Academy with all of the incredible science that's happening in the private sector?
So, we've tried a couple things. First of all, the National Academy of Engineering has many members who are from private industry. So, they do an excellent, excellent job of this. National Academy of Sciences does have some members who are in private industry. People from Microsoft and places like that. The problem is, for the National Academy of Sciences, we will probably never have a lot of people from industry, because as you know, in so many industries, their scientists are not allowed to publish in the public domain because of the proprietary nature of their work. So, that makes it very difficult to understand exactly who's done what, and why it's important. So, we developed a group at the National Academy, called the President's Circle, which is largely people from industry, although some people from philanthropy, too. These are people who, clearly by the nature of their job, would not be candidates for election to the academy, but it is a private group that we meet with regularly. We put on programs for them, and we listen a lot to them to find out, what are the concepts we need from industry from the scientific community? Because of the pandemic, the President's Circle has sort of gone by the wayside, because it really was the kind of group that needed personal connections. It wasn't all done on a virtual platform. But I think we're going to consider how to start up some new version of that once we get back to the office.
Marcia, to bring our conversation right up to the present, in light of all the things that are happening right now, there's this general sense among the public that science matters now more than ever. In what ways is the National Academy prepared to respond to this moment that we find ourselves in?
Yeah. I think that the National Academy would agree entirely that science is needed more than ever right now. We're trying to, first of all, as I said, be more nimble with our advice. Get it out sooner. The COVID pandemic was a great example of that, of giving advice with a week's notice to decision makers. So, we're certainly trying to be more nimble. We're also trying to use our internal resources, which is basically the endowment of the National Academy of Sciences, to launch studies earlier, maybe even before the government realizes that they've got an issue that they need input on. So, to be more anticipatory, I guess, would be the issue. And then the third is, of course, what we already discussed, good communication. We've really bolstered all our communication to try to resupply our audience, to reach the audience where they are now, which may not be the typical way we communicate, and to make sure that people have trusted resources that they can turn to.
Well, Marcia, at the beginning of your talk, we already covered your current work, the things that are most important to you now. So, I'd like to ask, for the last portion of this interview, a few broadly retrospective questions, and then we'll end looking to the future. So, first, to bring it back to where it all started for you, in geophysics, professionally, what are you most proud of in terms of the research that you did that really propelled the field forward?
Oh, gosh. That's such a hard question. It's sort of like making me choose which children I like the most.
You can defer to citations, or to the way you've been lauded by your peers, if you don't want to think on your own behalf.
Well, I think the work I did of the broadest scope, which has certainly stood the test of time, was the work I did in the South Pacific of trying to answer the question of, basically, why are there so many tropical islands in French Polynesia? It's a small part of the globe, and yet, it's literally dotted with tropical paradises. And it's in the middle of nowhere. It's near no plate boundary, or whatever. So, it was basically proposing and then doing the science to establish that basically the lower mantle at the core mantle boundary, beneath the South Pacific, has been Earth’s stovepipe for more than a hundred million years, and that excess heat has been vented from that area through all these volcanoes, and through warming of the upper mantle for, as I say, more than a hundred million years. And the reason why there's this burst stovepipe is that all of the subducting plates dip away from the Central Pacific. So, they basically are like stuffing ice cubes down into the Earth in a big halo around this section. So, that was the only place that the heat could escape.
In all of your administrative responsibilities, what stands out as the greatest challenge in terms of dealing with people, or crunching the numbers, or figuring out how to solve some intractable problem? What stands out in your memory as giving you a really important lesson that had universal application for all of the responsibilities that you've been involved in?
So, I think the biggest challenge is that humans, most humans anyway, are resistant to change. People get set in their ways, and they like it the way it is. People liked the fact that the National Academy couldn't eject members for any reason, including sexual harassment of their trainees. People liked the fact that the National Academy had become very overly exclusive, such that young people couldn't be elected, because by increasing the quota, that might just make their achievements seem less important. The one place I worked that actually selected all its staff for risk takers was MBARI. We only wanted people who wanted to do things differently, and push the envelope, and think in novel ways. We didn't want anyone who wanted to do things the same way over and over again. And that's why I loved that job so much. Every place else I've been, there have been some risk takers who are willing to try something new, and other people that just fight it. And I think that's the biggest problem.
Finally, Marcia, in the policy realm, for all of the positive impact that you've had, what stands out in your memory as really moving the needle more than anything else in terms of achieving the appropriate policy responses through science and research?
Can you say that again? What was that question?
All of the policy work that you've been involved in, what are you most proud of in terms of implementing and executing actual political change for the betterment of humanity through science and research?
Oh, wow. What am I most proud of in terms of policy change? Alright, I think it's probably that report I already mentioned on sexual harassment. It led to major changes in all the funding agencies -- NIH, NSF -- in terms of their tolerance for high performing principal investigators who actually were harassing their staff. And it was our 2018 report that there's the reality of this, and that wrote out a roadmap for how to wipe out this kind of behavior.
And the value here is that it reverberates. By setting this cultural tone in place, the benefits are going to be conferred for the long-term.
Exactly, and the situation before that was that the institutions had no self-interest in punishing sexual offenders, because very often these were people that brought in lots of grant money. So, institutions weren't going to do anything about it. So, it was changing that culture to say, no, these people are going to be exposed. They're not going to get funding. I mean, there was one case in which Caltech had this sexual harasser, and they said, "Okay, we're going to ban him from campus, but we're going to let him conduct his research from home." It's kind of like, you're going to what? You're going to still let him be PI on the grant, and have students and staff who report to him, but you don't want him on your campus?
It's like a Band-Aid, you're saying. It's not a real solution.
Well, it wasn't even a Band-Aid. It was kind of like saying, "Oh, this person is so awful we don't want to have him on campus, but it's okay that he still has impact on the rest of the research community." I mean, it was just inconsistent.
Marcia, last question, looking to the future. With time as a valuable resource, with all that you've accomplished, and the fact that all of the things that are most important to you are ongoing, and they require expert-level attention in the long-term, what's most important to you both in science, in the culture of science and in the policy world, that you'd like to accomplish for however long you want to remain active in this work?
I think it's this issue of integrity in research. Making sure that doing the right thing is easy, that everyone knows what the right thing is -- so that's education. You need technology to make it easy. You need education to make sure everyone knows what it is. And then you need coordination, so that funding agencies aren't setting up policies that run counter to what journals are saying. There's just, across the entire research enterprise, too many examples of conflicting expectations that lead to researchers not knowing what to do.
And again, this is an initiative that will also have long-term ripple effects for the good.
Yes, yes. Hopefully.
Marcia, it's been a great pleasure for me to spend this time with you. I'm so appreciative that we were able to do this, and this will be an unbelievably important and valued addition to our collection in the history of the physical sciences. I'd like to thank you so much for this.
Well, you're welcome. This has been interesting for me because you asked questions that I'd never thought of. So, that's kind of interesting, too. And basically, good luck with this project, and thank you, really, for taking it on.
Absolutely. My pleasure.