Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Celebrating our 20th Anniversary

David Packard's vision:
A peer relationship between scientists and engineers

Celebrating 20 yearsDavid PackardFundamental to the success of many MBARI projects are the close working relationships between scientists and engineers. That engineers and scientists tackle problems as equals was a key principle of David Packard’s vision for this oceanographic institute.

By the time Packard turned his attentions to creating MBARI, he already had many years of experience both in business and government, and had helped establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium. During his years of government service he was concerned that the technology for exploring, experimenting in, and understanding the deep sea was lagging far behind that for the space environment. And he recognized that improved technology for observation of the deep ocean would offer great opportunity for scientific advances.  

Cognizant that scientific progress depends on the development of instrumentation and equipment, Packard insisted that scientists, engineers, and operations staff work together in close collaboration. From the outset he advised that institute scientists should pose the research questions, engineers should devise instruments and equipment to answer those questions, and operations staff should focus on efficient operation of the institute’s experimental technology.

Contrast this to the situation at the typical research university where scientists solve the problems that they can solve with existing technology, rather than the problems they should solve. Engineers sometimes build remarkable systems for which no one has a use. Marine technicians, moreover, are expected to carry out the experiments of researchers whom they have never met, but who show up on the ship with “half an idea and fewer parts.”

Packard’s management goal—the dynamic and ever-challenging three-way marriage of science, engineering, and operations—remains one of MBARI’s distinguishing features. The success of this teamwork is evident in such accomplishments as the Monterey Ocean Observing System, the laser Raman spectrometer, and the Environmental Sample Processor.

“It is interesting to note that these examples of “classic” Packard projects were all instigated and executed after Packard’s death,” said MBARI President and Chief Executive Officer Marcia McNutt. “In a sense, his plan for MBARI is a vision that has become stronger and more focused in the years since his passing, rather than fading.”

Packard summarized his vision for the institute in the MBARI mission statement:

The mission of MBARI is to achieve and maintain a position as a world center for advanced research and education in ocean science and technology, and to do so through the development of better instruments, systems, and methods for scientific research in the deep waters of the ocean. MBARI emphasizes the peer relationship between engineers and scientists as a basic principle of its operation. All of the activities of MBARI must be characterized by excellence, innovation, and vision.

Packard advocated sending instruments, not people, into the deep sea. He also encouraged instrumentation that would return information, rather than samples, to shore. Demonstrating the utility of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with high-quality cameras and a suite of in situ sensors became the first assignment for the young institution. Packard encouraged MBARI staff to take risks.  In his own words, researchers were to “Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough.”

David Packard on the bridge of the R/V Western Flyer.
MBARI Founder David Packard on the bridge of the R/V Western Flyer. The new ship was completed shortly before Packard's death in 1996.

Packard also noted that “Deep-water research involves immense amounts of data. I have the impression that much more time is being spent in collecting the data than in looking at it and analyzing it. We believe that situation can be greatly improved.” This insight led MBARI to invest substantial resources into proper archiving, indexing, and dissemination of its vast data holdings from the ROVs and MBARI’s moorings. MBARI’s video annotation system sets the standard for how to extract information to solve problems that cut across the work of several researchers.

The final critical ingredient in Packard’s vision for MBARI was funding. He had witnessed first-hand the inefficiencies associated with federally funded research. His experience convinced him that MBARI could maximize its chances for success only if its researchers were freed from the burden of applying for external grants. So he provided the institute with start-up costs of about $13 million and continued annual funding through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. To this day, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation continues to supply over 75 percent of the institution’s annual budget, as well as funds for new facilities.

“At least in part thanks to David Packard’s investment in MBARI, we have come very close to leveling the playing field between ocean and space research,” McNutt said. “And the very real and tangible payback from that investment will far exceed anything that we have reaped from putting a man on the moon.”

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