The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute grew out of an exploratory voyage, a meeting of minds, and a vision.
The exploratory voyage spanned a series of submersible dives by biological oceanographer Bruce Robison. It was 1985, and Robison, then on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had a research grant to use the human-occupied submersible Deep Rover to investigate the depths off the Central California coast. What he observed through the submersible’s acrylic sphere both excited and frustrated him. The excitement stemmed from the remarkable animals and environment he witnessed; the frustration came from not being able to document his findings well due to the lack of a high-quality video camera.
Fortunately, Robison found a solution at the newly established Monterey Bay Aquarium, where engineer Derek Baylis had designed and constructed an underwater housing for a broadcast-quality camera that allowed Robison to capture images of the wonders he’d been trying to communicate to skeptics.
The captivating video images from Robison’s exploratory voyage inspired the concept of a deep-water research program in Monterey Bay. While aquarium planners had intended to cultivate research projects related to marine life displays, aquarium benefactor David Packard’s thinking now shifted to the idea of establishing a research program with a much broader agenda.
In autumn of 1986 a meeting was called to convene an oceanographic think-tank of scientists from top-flight West Coast research institutions. The group discussed the status of oceanography and the feasibility of setting up a major research effort at Monterey Bay. A planning committee was formed and, meeting with David Packard, his wife, Lucile, and members of the aquarium board, the group began to set goals and parameters for a research center. The new institute was to have, in the words of the committee, “a clear identity distinct from that of other oceanographic institutions and a reason for being that leaves no doubt that the institute occupies a mostly vacant niche of importance.” In 1987 Packard decided that the research center should be an independent entity, separate from the aquarium. Articles of incorporation as a public-benefit, non-profit corporation were filed in May, and the MBARI (pronounced “em-baree”) board of directors met for the first time on June 27.
The institute’s “clear identity and reason for being” derived directly from David Packard’s vision. Packard realized that Monterey Bay—with its steep drop-off to near-abyssal depths within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of shore—offered an unprecedented opportunity to explore, in microcosm, the planet’s oceans. And, he realized that development of improved technology for observation of the deep ocean would offer great opportunity for scientific advances. It was also a unique chance for Packard to apply his energy, leadership, and engineering acumen to press oceanography onward into twenty-first-century technology.
Packard recognized three areas of nascent technology that made his vision for a major ocean-research program particularly timely: remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), instrumentation for chemical analysis, and computer science and communications. All of these would become cornerstones in MBARI’s research agenda. Equally important to the institute’s overall direction were issues of management. Cognizant that scientific progress crucially 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 devise instruments and equipment for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and operations staff focus on effective operation of the institute’s experimental technology. This management goal—the dynamic and ever-challenging three-way marriage of science, engineering, and operations—remains one of MBARI’s chief distinguishing features.
The final critical ingredient in Packard’s vision for MBARI was the matter of 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 funding through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In exchange he demanded excellence and innovation in developing “better equipment, instrumentation, systems, and methods for scientific research in the deep waters of the ocean.”
—Excerpted from MBARI’s First Decade: A Retrospective