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Lessons from the top: Science’s Marcia McNutt offers hard-won wisdom on leadership

In a talk here on campus yesterday, Marcia McNutt, PhD, shared lessons she's learned from leading top U.S scientific institutions, including her current post as editor-in-chief of the journal Science.

McNutt's talk was part of the Dean's Lecture Series, and Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, said he was motivated to invite her to speak, in part, after they shared a six-hour bus 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 Stanford.)

In a talk that packed the School of Medicine's Berg Hall, McNutt offered three leadership lessons and told the crowd, "Much of what I learned about leadership was formed in the crucible of crisis."

The first example stemmed from a budgetary crisis learned 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 research organization was able to avoid any layoffs by developing a plan that focused on its core mission, which included conducting high-risk research. Importantly, the budget and plan were formed by staff members, who were motivated to protect their jobs and more likely to support a budget they had helped create, McNutt explained.

As director of the U.S. Geological Survey, McNutt said she became known as the "master of disaster." Hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes rocked her tenure. But, among her greatest challenges was addressing 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 — who had differing backgrounds and working styles and were reluctant to trust each other, McNutt said.

"The trick was to use their diversity as a strength," McNutt said. She tapped each team'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 addressed her actions as editor-in-chief of Science to restore the creditability of science following a series of well-known scandals, including the fraud committed by South Korean research Hwong Woo-Suk, DVM, PhD, and the misconduct by stem-cell biologist Haruko Obokata, PhD.

These incidents, among others, prompted a wave of reforms to boost transparency and ethics at many top journals, including Science. "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 since the journal was created in 1880, will be leaving Science to lead the National Academy of Sciences in July. There she will be the first woman leader since it was founded in 1863.

Previously: Intel's Rosalind Hudnell kicks off Dean's Lecture Series on diversity, Dean's Lecture Series puts spotlight on health of sexual and gender minorities and To boost diversity in academia, "true grit" is needed
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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