T

he first woman tapped to lead the National Academy of Sciences has been blazing a path for female scientists for decades.

Marcia McNutt’s bio is peppered with firsts: She was the first woman to direct the US Geological Survey, the first woman to run the prestigious journal Science — and likely the first woman to roar into the MIT parking lot on a fiery red motorcycle to teach a course in geophysics.

So it came as a shock to her many admirers when McNutt and her editorial staff at Science recently came under fire for several incidents that seemed to reinforce sexist stereotypes. One was an advice column that counseled a young female scientist to “put up with” her male boss sneaking glances down her shirt.

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Hundreds of scientists — both men and women — signed a scathing letter to Science’s leadership this summer suggesting that the staff receive sensitivity training. And the anger continues to simmer. This month, California congresswoman Jackie Speier wrote to McNutt’s boss calling on the journal to do more “to help make science less hostile to women and minorities.”

McNutt has apologized for “missteps.” But in an interview with STAT, she argued that her staff is quite “forward-leaning,” and she takes pride in empowering women in science. “If you marched the women out of this building, they’d have to shut it down,” she said — and that makes the accusations of sexism at the journal all the more personal and disappointing.

Blown cover

McNutt’s troubles at Science started in July 2014 when the journal ran a cover story with the headline “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS”. The accompanying photo: a picture of two transgender women in tight, short dresses, heads cropped out of the frame.

The image was lambasted on social media as an objectifying, dehumanizing editorial decision. And the choice was made worse by comments from Jim Austin, editor of Science’s sister publication Science Careers. On Twitter, using the since-deactivated handle @SciCareerEditor, he defended the cover: “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” one tweet read.

McNutt, in a statement at the time, promised to “strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups.”

The July 11, 2014 cover of Science
The July 11, 2014 cover of Science.

That strategy worked for about a year, before Science landed itself in hot water again. This time it was for the advice column from Alice Huang, a CalTech virologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science), who argued that a female postdoctoral fellow should tolerate her supervisor’s roving eyes staring at her chest. “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can,” Huang wrote on June 1. (The article has since been removed, although an archived version is still available.)

One month later, Science published a commentary from Eleftherios Diamandis, biochemist-in-chief at University Health Network in Toronto, who pointed to his wife, also a PhD scientist, giving up her career and taking on the family’s domestic responsibilities as the reason for his own professional advancements.

McNutt responded to these columns with a formal apology. In an editor’s note dated July 16, she wrote that Science and Science Careers had “a couple of missteps, which we regret.” She wants to start an external advisory board made up of young people in science who might be more in tune to the issues. She also said she’d like to see advice columns switched to an upvote-downvote system, so only guidance that readers find relevant and appropriate makes its way to the top of the Science Careers’ website.

Austin, for his part, resigned as the head of Science Careers, effective July 3. Science writer Rachel Bernstein currently serves as the interim editor. For a permanent hire, McNutt told STAT she wanted to find someone who can “avoid loaded language and can make sure that what is written cannot be misconstrued, does not inadvertently give the wrong message, and cannot in any way be offensive.”

Many of Science’s most vocal critics were impressed by how McNutt handled the controversy. “She did a great job responding,” said Jennifer Glass, a geochemist at Georgia Tech who helped pen an open letter, co-signed by more than 600 scientists, that denounced Science for its sexist incidents. “It’s not an us versus her thing.”

Critics say they’re pointing out a larger problem in publishing journals. Science’s main competitor, the British journal Nature, has also been accused of male chauvinism — most notably for a 2011 science-fiction column called “Womanspace”, in which the author, a male virologist, discussed the shopping habits of men and women, comparing them to hunters and gatherers, respectively.

But that’s cold comfort for McNutt. She worries that the perception of sexism at these top journals only feeds gender disparities that already exist in science — a problem she has endeavored for years to fix.

Nice going

In May of this year, before Science ran the two columns that drew sharp criticism, McNutt penned an editorial with a clear directive: “Give women an even chance.”

“I like to think that I am a nice person,” McNutt wrote, referring to a personality judgment often applied to female graduate students, but rarely to young male scientists. “But ‘nice’ never got me a research grant or professional position.”

Rather, former colleagues said, McNutt has forged a pioneering career by being both a sharp scientist and a visible leader. “She’s shattering glass ceilings left and right,” said Chris Scholin, head of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, a position previously held by McNutt for 12 years (she was also the first woman to hold that position).

Dr. Marcia McNutt, currently the Editor-in-chief at Science, poses for a portrait in her office in Washington, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (Drew Angerer for STAT)
Marcia McNutt, currently the editor-in-chief at Science, poses for a portrait in her office in Washington. Drew Angerer for STAT

Even in the center of the whirlwind controversy at Science, McNutt never shied away from the spotlight — and the same could be said back when she was leading the US Geological Survey.

After the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, in which up to 60,000 barrels of oil started flooding into the Gulf of Mexico every day, President Obama tapped McNutt to head up the committee to determine what should be done about the disaster. “She was thrust into the role of a very hands-on science advisor,” said David Applegate, acting deputy director at the USGS.

That experience will serve McNutt well when she steps in to lead the National Academy of Sciences come July 2016, at which point she will leave her post at Science. McNutt’s confirmation as president of the venerable 152-year-old institution is expected next month.

The NAS, broadly speaking, is tasked with providing guidance on scientific issues to government officials and policymakers. The Academy’s roster is a laundry list of prominent researchers who are elected in by their peers, and they regularly provide all kinds of advice on issues from how to approach the growing popularity of e-cigarettes to how to gauge climate change.

McNutt “has thought a lot about what it means to be a translator or conduit of scientific information to decision makers,” Applegate said.

And those same talents should also help McNutt advance the mission of the NAS to increase the public’s understanding of science, noted Anne Castle, former assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, the agency that oversees the USGS. “She has a remarkable ability to translate complex science into words and examples that regular people can understand,” Castle said.

McNutt may have had a rocky tenure at Science. But she — and the scientific community at large — seem to be moving on. And as McNutt steps into her new role as NAS president, she’ll be doing so with the support and confidence of many of her peers.

“Scientists only respect someone who they believe has the credentials and the track record and the integrity to earn their respect,” McNutt said in an interview with the Washington Post after the Deepwater Horizon spill. “And the flip side of that is that if you ever do anything to lose that respect, there’s no coming back.”

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