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McNutt discusses leadership lessons learned in crises

Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science, spoke April 18 as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series.

- By Becky Bach

“Much of what I learned about leadership was formed in the crucible of crisis,” Marcia McNutt said in a talk at Stanford on April 18.
Norbert von der Groeben

In a talk on campus April 18, Marcia McNutt, PhD, shared lessons she’s learned from leading top U.S scientific institutions, including the journal Science, where she’s currently the editor-in-chief.

McNutt’s talk was part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the School of Medicine, and Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, who introduced her, said he was in part motivated to invite her to speak after they shared a six-hour ride through China in a “marginally air-conditioned bus.”

“I can tell you she maintains good humor even under stressful conditions,” Minor said, adding that the school was “honored and thrilled” to welcome her back to Stanford. (McNutt previously was a professor of geophysics at the university.)

Speaking to a large audience in Berg Hall, at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, McNutt offered three leadership lessons. “Much of what I learned about leadership was formed in the crucible of crisis,” she said.

Budgetary crisis

The first example stemmed from a budgetary crisis during the post-9/11 recession, when she led the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Despite a plummeting stock market, under McNutt’s leadership the organization was able to avoid layoffs by developing a plan that focused on its core mission, which included conducting high-risk research. Importantly, the budget and plan were created by staff members, who were motivated to protect their jobs and were more likely to support a budget they had helped create, McNutt said.

Especially in times of crisis, diversity matters.

As director of the U.S. Geological Survey, McNutt said one of her greatest challenges was managing efforts to deal with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. There, she needed to unite a diverse team of industry and government scientists, engineers and technical experts — all of whom had differing backgrounds and working styles and were reluctant to trust one another, McNutt said.

“The trick was to use their diversity as a strength,” McNutt said. She tapped each team member’s individual talents, using their expertise and wide-ranging opinions to reach the best solution quickly. “Especially in times of crisis, diversity matters,” she said. “I can’t emphasize diversity enough.”

Finally, McNutt described the steps she took as editor-in-chief of Science to restore the creditability of scientific research following a series of high-profile scandals, including the fraud committed by South Korean researcher Hwong Woo-Suk, DVM, PhD, and the misconduct by stem-cell biologist Haruko Obokata, PhD.

These incidents, among others, prompted a wave of reforms at many top journals, including Science, to boost transparency and ethics. “Nothing matters more than a good reputation in science,” McNutt said. “Always take the high road and strive for openness and transparency.”

That lesson is challenging because it will mean problems in research will increasingly be identified, she said. “We are going to have to live with that, because that is what is best for science,” McNutt said. “The only antidote is to do really good science to begin with.”

McNutt, who is the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of Science since it was founded in 1880, will leave the journal in July to lead the National Academy of Sciences. She will be the first female leader of the academy since it was founded in 1863.


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