MTS President’s Column: March 2020
Time to Adapt or Evolve
“Hybrid vigor” is the term used by biologists to describe the capability for a species or an ecosystem to survive through the evolutionary process of genetic mixing. In short, it means that a group is more apt to survive by integrating with other groups while absorbing those traits and characteristics which make it stronger. The concept of hybrid vigor is just as applicable to technical fields of study; the more such groups “mix it up” with other technical fields, the healthier those groups will be.
I saw this principle in action a few years back when I was leading the research component of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C. Our division of over 1,200 individuals had an interesting opportunity to engage with a leading tech firm in Silicon Valley. The challenge of bringing together a diverse group of professionals from the private and federal sectors to collaboratively identify problems and come up with solutions was formidable but the payoff for both was likely to be enormous. However, to meet the challenge, I determined that we (NOAA) needed to embed a subject matter expert into the company for about six to nine months. I put a call out to all personnel: “Who would like to go work in Silicon Valley for less than a year, for a well-known tech firm, all expenses paid?” Out of 1,200 people, only one volunteer stepped forward. I was stunned. I hadn’t realized how difficult it is to step out of one’s comfort zone and dive into the unknown. In the end, this story has a great ending. That one individual turned out to be the perfect candidate and the outcome was a win all around: for the tech firm, for NOAA, and for this one individual (who is now a high-ranking government official). But still, it is notable that only 0.1% of that population was interested in engaging with a new and different technology.
This brings me to MTS. Recently, I served on a review panel for a prestigious and well-respected institution in the oceanographic community. It became evident to the review panel that for all the strengths of this institution, they still would benefit enormously from “getting out more”. Technological developments in fields well outside of marine technology and oceanography might offer excellent opportunities for the scientists and engineers at this institution but no mechanisms were put in place to facilitate development of that “hybrid vigor.” I kept wondering how MTS could help catalyze such activity.
Imagine if we were to establish even more effective means for exchange of technological capacity between groups working in advanced materials, biomedicine, photonics, or exascale computing to name just a few. Each of these technical fields has a representative professional society. Maybe we should work more aggressively to look for points of intersection between MTS and these organizations. The outcome could be a wonderful additional component for our regular OCEANS conferences or result in a whole new ecosystem that encourages technical exchange. I’m less concerned about the “where” and wondering more “how” our MTS membership feels about spreading our wings with potential partner technological sectors.
Maybe it’s time for us to work on our hybrid vigor! Let me know your thoughts. Email me at email@example.com.