The first female editor in chief of the prestigious journal Science is now set to become the first female president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. On Monday the NAS announced the committee's nomination of Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist by training, to take over when current president Ralph J. Cicerone steps down on July 1, 2016.
Members of the Academy could nominate another prospective candidate to compete with McNutt on her Dec. 15 election, but that's never happened in the group's history.
Along with the rest of the scientists of the Academy, McNutt is tasked with providing objective scientific advice to the U.S. government to influence sound policy decisions. McNutt is no stranger to that task: In 2014 McNutt took the controversial stance of supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, which she deemed to be the least of all available evils given the country's dependence on fossil fuel. And just days ago, McNutt attracted the ire of climate change deniers by writing that "the time for debate has ended" in a Science editorial calling for urgent action.
The nomination is a long time coming for NAS, which was established in an Act of Congress in 1863. Science is still largely unwelcoming to women -- especially when it comes to positions of power -- and the nomination of a (highly qualified) female scientist is heartening, to say the least.
McNutt herself has expressed a desire to pave the way for future women of science. In May, she published an editorial in Science imploring senior academics to be mindful of their unconscious biases against women: In reviewing 60 grant applications, she reported, 10% of the recommendation letters highlighted qualities unrelated to research -- and every single one of those 10% were female applicants. In addition to focusing on things other than science acumen in their recommendations for women, letter writers (of both sexes) were using words like "nice" and "humble" to describe them, while men were described as "brilliant" and "hard working".
McNutt acknowledged that most of this bias was probably unintentional, "but that information does not belong in letters of recommendation. I like to think that I am a nice person. But “nice” never got me a research grant or professional position," she wrote.
Those subtle biases hit close to home in June, when a columnist for Science advised a woman experiencing sexual harassment from her adviser to just take it, lest she hurt her career. Science quickly retracted the piece and emphasized that the journal and magazine's editorial board does not condone harassment.