Marcia K. McNutt
As nominee for the position of
Director of the U.S. Geological Survey
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
United States Senate
October 8, 2009
Chairman Bingaman, Senator Murkowski, distinguished members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am honored to come before you as President Obama’s nominee for Director of the US Geological Survey. I am excited about this opportunity to join Secretary Salazar’s team at the Department of the Interior, especially now, when the nation’s need for timely information on natural hazards, environmental and climate change, and water, energy, biological, and other natural resources has never been greater.
My inspiration for dedicating my life to the Earth sciences comes from having lived in some of the most beautiful landscapes that America has to offer: the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the sandy beaches of La Jolla and Cape Cod, and now John Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven above Monterey Bay. I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, but even when I was young I could never picture myself in a lab coat with a test tube.
I majored in Physics at Colorado College, but my favorite college course was Introduction to Geology, taught by Professor John Lewis. Colorado College uses the block plan in which students only take one course at a time for a month. Introduction to Geology is two blocks long. So my first two months at college were spent with Doc Lewis and about 19 other students scrambling around the Front Range with our back packs and sleeping bags trying to piece together the geologic history of the Southern Rockies from first principles. We never cracked a book the entire time. I was drawn to the grandeur of the Earth sciences and awed by the time and space scales upon which Earth processes played out. No lab coat. No test tube. Science outside!
Once I arrived at graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I switched fields from Physical Oceanography to Marine Geophysics because plate tectonics was revolutionizing the geosciences. With the vast majority of plate boundaries under the ocean, marine geophysicists would be the ones to put the pieces of the theory together. Entering the field at that time was like becoming a biologist right after Darwin wrote Origin of the Species or becoming a physicist right after Einstein wrote the Special Theory of Relativity. Old papers, textbooks, and theories were suddenly rendered irrelevant, such that there was no large body of prior knowledge to be absorbed. Observations had to be reinterpreted within the context of the new framework. Major marine expeditions were led, and often staffed entirely, by my fellow graduate students and myself, because many of the more senior practitioners in the field were too slow to embrace the new paradigm. It was a heady time filled with the excitement of scientific discovery. Science at sea!
I credit the US Geological Survey for giving me my first “real” job after receiving my PhD. I spent three wonderful years in the Office of Earthquake Studies in Menlo Park, California, calibrating the strength of plates on time scales relevant to the earthquake generation process. Working on the earthquake problem, in California, gave me my first taste of what it was like to be involved in research of interest to the general public, not just my fellow scientists. This was science people use! I also benefitted from this time at the GS in that I can still appreciate the culture of the organization from the viewpoint of someone who has spent time “down in the trenches,” and yet the intervening years away allow me to bring a fresh perspective to the organization.
The majority of my career has been spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I served on the faculty in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences for 15 years, and was eventually awarded an endowed chair. I enjoyed being surrounded every day by some of the brightest young minds in the country, engaging them in forefront research problems, and watching them grow intellectually each day. My favorite part about MIT was serving as a freshman advisor and hearing the personal stories of the students each September. Many represented the first generation in their families to attend college. Whether they had come from the barrios of San Antonio or the plains of North Dakota, the one thing they shared was the fact that they had earned their place in the MIT freshman class by their own effort. And back home, an entire community was cheering them on.
My research took me and my students all over the planet: to the islands of French Polynesia, the Tibet Plateau, Iceland, Siberia, and Antarctica. At MIT I learned how to do what really counts, how to find, measure, and nurture excellence, and to become ridiculously efficient at multi-tasking. Equally importantly, I developed a complete intolerance for sloppy science and anything but the highest ethical standards.
My most recent posting for the last 12 years has been as the President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, better known as MBARI. MBARI is an oceanographic research institution founded by David Packard and privately funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. With its emphasis on peer relationships between scientists and engineers and encouragement of high-risk research and technology development, MBARI is best described as a “NASA for the oceans,” albeit at a smaller budget scale. This latest position has given me ample experience in leadership, management, and administration, as well as considerable opportunity to familiarize myself with issues and opportunities in environmental chemistry and biology.
In looking back at my time at MBARI, I believe I have left a mark on several aspects of institute operations. First, teamwork. Across science, engineering, marine operations, outreach programs, and administrative areas, everyone functions as a well-oiled team. To a person, everyone understands that the reason we exist is to support the research mission and to make it progress smoothly and flawlessly. Second, our mission. I helped redirect MBARI from a broadly constituted portfolio in basic research to a more targeted set of socially relevant topics such as ocean acidification, eutrophication, methane hydrates, and harmful algal blooms, nearly a decade before they became common buzzwords. Finally, the staff. I am proud of the people I have hired, their work ethic, and their commitment to Packard’s founding vision of how a different kind of institution can truly make a difference.
You may all be wondering why I would consider leaving such a scientific paradise and relocating from my beloved Pastures of Heaven at this time. This nation is facing important decisions concerning future uses of its precious resources: water, energy, and environment. We are increasingly at economic risk from natural hazards. The challenges associated with climate change must be better understood. Submarine areas under US control out to the 200 mile limit are equal to the subaerial land area of this great nation, and yet the seabed resources have yet to be explored and inventoried. In deciding how best to move forward, our leaders, including members of Congress, the President, and the Secretary of the Interior, need sound, unbiased, scientific advice. Science is not the only factor in decision making, but it needs to be one of the factors. The USGS has long-term records and scientific expertise that can be used for making good choices based on solid data, and can look into the geologic record to determine whether recent conditions are likely to be representative of the future. Now, more than ever before, the nation needs the USGS, and I would be proud, if confirmed, to lead this effort.
So, in summary, these are the skills and qualities I would hope to bring to the leadership of the US Geological Survey, if confirmed:
- The capacity to be inspired by the natural world
- A love for science outside
- An appreciation for the culture of the US Geological Survey
- A history of association with some of the finest research institutions in the nation
- The ability to recognize and nurture excellence
- High ethical standards
- An aptitude for leadership
- Experience in team building
- A track record for asking the right scientific questions
Thank you for the opportunity to come before you, and I look forward to this challenge, should you confirm me for this position.
[thanks to Alaska State Geologist Bob Swenson for passing this along]
[thanks to Alaska State Geologist Bob Swenson for passing this along]