Five Questions for Marcia McNutt

The new president of the National Academy of Sciences answers questions on the 2016 election, science literacy, peer review, and more.

In 2010, after the failed offshore rig Deepwater Horizon began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist and then director of the United States Geological Survey, was sent to the area to lead the emergency response and act as scientific liaison between the oil industry and the Obama administration.

McNutt has made a career of bridging science and politics, first as president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and most recently as editor in chief of the journal Science, a tenure that was not without its fair share of controversies and near-constant dialogue with the public. This year, she became president of the National Academy of Sciences, where she will be advising the government on issues ranging from climate change to food security.

For this installment of the Undark Five, we asked McNutt to answer questions about the 2016 election, her experience in government, and her thoughts on science literacy and the future of peer review.

Undark —  The 2016 Presidential election has largely focused on immigration reform and the economy, but pressing issues of science, medicine, and technology have been conspicuously missing from the conversation. What has been your impression of the level of science discussion during this presidential cycle, and do you think voters care whether presidential candidates articulate positions on scientific matters? 

MARCIA MCNUTT —  Honestly, I don’t think that it is unusual not to hear political candidates discuss scientific topics. Very few politicians are trained as scientists or are comfortable discussing science at a deep level. The 2016 Presidential election is no different, and I do not think that voters necessarily expect their candidates to discuss matters of science. What I do think that voters expect is that candidates apply scientific understanding to decision making as it is one of the very few objective inputs to sound policy and management. The questions that a number of scientific organizations compiled for ScienceDebate 2016 allow each campaign in the 2016 election to demonstrate how they have applied scientific reasoning to arrive at national policy for a robust economy, good health, a clean environment, a first-class educational system, abundant food, water, and energy, and a secure nation. I look forward to seeing their responses.

UD —  Donald Trump has described climate change as a hoax, and vowed to dramatically scale back — and perhaps entirely eliminate — the Environmental Protection Agency, which has worked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal power and other fossil fuel sources. If you had the chance to influence a voter considering casting a ballot for Trump in November, what would you want them to know about the implications of such policies?

MM —  Far too many Americans are not valuing efforts to reduce risk from climate change or environmental protection. When that is the case, these efforts become easy targets for those who want to cut costs and redirect funding to other efforts. There are many actions we can take to reverse the insensitivity here at home. For example, we don’t need to venture too far from U.S. borders to find examples of people living in questionable conditions without proper sanitation, clean air, or clean water. And yet when Americans do venture abroad, they often wall themselves off in enclaves, thus avoiding encountering what life would be like without the EPA. To understand what climate change will be like in the not-too-distant future here, one simply needs to visit a place like Barrow, Alaska today, or any of the Pacific atolls making plans to relocate their entire population as they face inundation. A recent National Academies report concluded that statistically, both sustained drought and major flooding events are now more likely — and thus can be attributed — to changing climate. Quite prophetic, given the recent events in both California and Louisiana.

UD —  Scientific American recently made an unprecedented political statement when it challenged Donald Trump over his attacks on science. What are the best and worst examples you’ve seen of politicians grappling with complex scientific and technical issues in the public sphere?

MM —  Best: A great in my estimation of a complex situation when science was extremely helpful in sorting through a complex policy issue was negotiating the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Prior to this treaty, school children used to have drills at school on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Ordinary citizens built and stocked fallout shelters to sustain them in cased we were bombed by the Soviet Union or some other nuclear power. Stumbling blocks to the US signing the treaty were: One, whether scientists could distinguish an underground nuclear blast from an earthquake; and two, whether the global seismic network was sufficiently dense to detect any nuclear test above the threshold allowed by the treaty. Scientists developed the methodology to answer both questions in the affirmative, and the nuclear arms race was essentially halted as a result.

Worst: I recall that the decision to build sand berms in the Gulf of Mexico (at a cost of $220 million dollars) to try to protect the Louisiana coastline from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was rated as the most ineffective and overwhelming expensive intervention of the entire event. In the final tally, the berms stopped less than 0.2 percent of the oil from reaching Louisiana. What is worse, the project was undertaken as the insistence of the then governor, despite insistences from scientists that the sand berms wouldn’t help, would be too late, would divert resources from needed efforts, and might even make things worse.

UD —   Nearly half of the U.S. population does not accept the basic science of evolution, according to a recent Gallup poll. A similar percentage believes humans activity is unrelated to global warming. A 2014 survey found that the average American can correctly answer just 6.5 out of 9 basic science questions — roughly a C-minus performance. And American views on genetically modified foods are wildly at odds with those of the vast majority of scientists. What are your views on the state of scientific literacy among the American public and its relevance to a functioning democracy?

MM —  On evolution: So many Americans deny the theory of evolution despite the fact that they use principles from evolution in their daily lives, for example, in demanding that scientists develop new antibiotics to fight bacteria that have evolved to become resistant to current treatments. This is a perfect example of people not reconciling their beliefs with their own knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

On climate change: The proportion of Americans who accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity is low as compared with, for example, the acceptance of these facts in Europe, but the proportion is rising. The latest Gallup poll revealed that 65 percent of Americans now attribute climate change to human actions and are concerned “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about this issue. I just hope that this shift in opinion is not coming too late.

On GMOs: I am not sure it is fair to mix in with this discussion opinions about genetically modified foods. While there is much disinformation that has been disseminated about the safety to humans of GMOs, in many of my conversations with people opposed to genetically modified foods, the issues of concern center on some of the social and ethical dimensions. The National Academies has recently issued a very comprehensive report on this issue.

On science literacy: The National Academies has a new study out on this topic that contradicts some widely-held beliefs about science literacy in the U.S. For example, the report reinforces one of my own strong preferences that our education in science should be emphasizing science as a structured way of uncovering the laws of nature and the truths that govern the functioning of the world around us, rather than in memorizing facts. I honestly don’t care if someone who is accosted on the street can’t recall a scientific fact. What I am more interested in is if the person says, “I don’t know, but let me tell you what I’d do to figure it out.”

UD —  Moving away from politics, you’ve spoken a lot about scientific integrity in general, most recently as the editor in chief of Science. But the popularity of pre-prints and scientific research published ahead of peer review is, in the view of some critics, helping to undermine the public’s trust in science. Given that you’ve said in the past that there is a place for expedited peer review, could you explain when you think it is justified, and what the risks and trade-offs might be?

MM —  On trust in science. Scientific journals are just one of many gatekeepers helping to enforce standards, increase transparency, and uphold the highest levels of scientific integrity. But it would be very wrong to think that journals can do it alone or that journals can do it perfectly. There are many stakeholders who must be part of the process, starting with the scientific education system that instills a culture of integrity and honesty as the cornerstone of good scientific practice. Scientific societies and research institutions should be rewarding and honoring researchers who display the epitome of appropriate ethical conduct. If ethical behavior were so ingrained in the practice of science, we would be less reliant on journals as the final check. And even in that regard, I know of many cases when it has been a reader who has flagged an undisclosed conflict of interest and brought it to the attention of the editor and other readers.

On peer review. The publication enterprise is changing. I remain committed to peer review as the best process yet devised to improve what is disseminated and determine what is worth building upon, regardless of whether that peer review is connected to a journal. I don’t think that anyone should have confidence in a result posted online until it has undergone review. My concern with anything “expedited” is how to maintain quality. The scientific enterprise is overloaded in terms of the numbers of papers that require vetting. Only a few journals do “expedited” well.

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    She gave nice answers these questions thanks for sharing this information……….

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