MTS President’s Column – December 2019

December 9, 2019

What’s in a definition?

Rick Spinrad, PhD, CMarSci
MTS President

What is “marine technology”?  Does it matter whether MTS has a definition at hand, ready to present to anyone who might ask?  Recently, having had the opportunity to meet with a range of policymakers in Washington, DC, I was asked that first question a few times.  MTS has visited this issue in the past, and, in fact, related societies have dealt with the question over time.  WEGEMT, a European Association of 40 Universities in 17 countries defines marine technology as “Technologies for the safe use, exploitation, protection of, and intervention in, the marine environment; involving Naval Architecture, Marine Engineering, Ship Design, Building and Operations, Oil & Gas Exploration, Exploitation and Production, Hydrodynamics, Navigation, Sea Surface and Sub-Surface Support, Underwater Technology and Engineering, Marine (renewable and non-renewable) Resources, Transport Logistics and Economics, Inland, Coastal, Short Sea and Deep Sea Shipping, Protection of the Marine Environment, Leisure, Safety.”  (https://web.archive.org/web/20120324141245/http://www.wegemt.org.uk/home/technology.htm)

There are obvious advantages to having a clear, crisp, consensus definition.  It provides focus for people who are trying to decide where to engage on questions regarding applications of new ideas.  An unequivocal definition can also serve as a unifying concept to aggregate individuals and organizations within different disciplines, but whose focus is captured in such a definition.  Most pragmatically, in this age of on-line searches and AI-assisted queries, a concise definition can ensure that marine technologists are accessible to those in need of the capabilities and capacities represented by our community.

By the same token, the effort to build a definition can itself become a Sisyphean task.  A field like marine technology is sufficiently broad that any definition is apt to be burdensomely long and complex, to capture all interests; case in point, I would argue, is the definition provided above by WEGEMT, above.  Ephemerality is also a concern.  If we choose in a definition to enumerate all of the areas of applicability or domains of relevance, do we constrain ourselves to just those that we know of today?  How can we be sure the definition will be adequately bounded to incorporate future growth and diversification of the field?

In thinking about this question of definition, I looked at how other societies handle the issue.  While my search was far from exhaustive, I did notice, for example, that while the Advanced Medical Technology Association (https://www.advamed.org/about-advamed) chooses not to define medical technology, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers does provide a definition of their field (https://www.asabe.org/About-Us/About-the-Profession).  I would argue that both of these fields are as broad and diverse as our field of marine technology.  So there is no clear ‘protocol’ here… it’s really up to us.

The answer may be to work towards a preliminary definition that we all agree upon but recognize it will need regular adjustment and modification.  We need to respect that there will always be a highly personal aspect to any definition (I’m reminded of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define “pornography”, famously stated, “I know it when I see it”).  It may be that there is no satisfactory timeless and comprehensive definition of marine technology, but that there may be -at least –  a minimalist definition that we’re all comfortable using the next time someone asks “what is marine technology?”  I welcome your thoughts – email me at rick.spinrad@mtsociety.org.

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