2021 GSA President's Medal

Presented to Marcia McNutt

Marcia McNutt

Marcia McNutt
National Academy of Sciences


Citation by J. Douglas Walker

It is with great honor that I present the 2021 Geological Society of America’s Presidential Medal to Dr. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academies of Science. Her career has been very distinguished. McNutt got her BA degree in Physics from Colorado College and her Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She spent her early post-graduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was named the Griswold Professor of Geophysics and became the Director of the Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering. Unlike most researchers, McNutt continued to take on and address new challenges rather than remaining in a comfortable tenured faculty position. She went from MIT to become President of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, was named the Director of the United States Geological Survey, became the Chief Editor for Science magazine of the AAAS, and is now the President of the National Academies of Sciences. With each move, McNutt addressed the most pressing scientific and societal issues, ranging from the BP oil spill to the role of Open Access in the publication of scientific results.

I first met McNutt when she interviewed at MIT while I was a graduate student there. Her interview talk was very impressive scientifically, but she started her presentation with a slide showing her academic ancestry tracing her advisor tree back to Isaac Newton. This boldness is characteristic of McNutt as a person and a scientist. When she started at MIT, her office was on one of the geology floors at the Green Building, just two doors down from my graduate student office. Although I did not take any classes with her, I got to know her because all the students got to play with her cute dog in the hallway. I remember when at a colloquium, the dog became incensed with a speaker at the beginning of a colloquium. Although things were calm during the talk, the pet had presaged the tone of questioning to follow the presentation.

When she left MIT for MBARI, I was very surprised by the move. When I talked about this move with her recently, as well as her other stints in the most impactful leadership positions in the Earth Sciences, I came to realize that the boldness and leadership I first perceived in McNutt are genuinely exceptional and that her vision of science went well beyond her research program but reached to the critical engagement of society in the scientific process. McNutt’s academic accomplishments and her visionary and inspiring leadership have greatly furthered the Earth Sciences and all sciences. With the utmost pleasure and honor, I award Marcia K. McNutt the Presidential Medal of the Geological Society of America.


Response by Marcia McNutt

I first want to express my gratitude to President Walker and the entire GSA community for this honor. Truly remarkable individuals (and an organization) have received this honor before me; thank you for thinking me worthy.

I feel so fortunate to have benefitted from a career with abundant opportunities to learn – to expand my horizons from my beginnings in geophysics to gain exposure first to the full breadth of marine and Earth sciences, and ultimately to all of science. I have held posts at a university, a research institution, a government agency, a journal, and a membership organization. But at no point did I deviate from my belief that the highest purpose of integrating with the geosciences this broader knowledge across these many fields was to serve society better.

Geoscientists take the long view. They understand that this world has been shaped for billions of years by forces beyond our control. At the same time, geoscientists have argued that the forces that most threaten humankind are the cataclysms of our own making: wanton destruction of natural ecosystems, without a thought to the life-giving services they provide to us, unsustainable plundering of natural resources, without thinking of leaving something for future generations, and selfish emissions of greenhouse gases, despite the knowledge that they are driving the planet to climate conditions beyond what humankind has ever experienced.

Geoscientists read the past to predict the future. Unless we as a society take heed what science is saying, our future might not be all that rosy. A mostly upward trajectory for the past few millennia of constantly improving health, security, and quality of life is at risk. I sincerely thank all of you for your efforts to shape a more promising future for humankind that includes preserving Earth as a habitable home. It is the only one we have, and the only one we have ever known.