Catch phrase

To wind down BlueValue for 2020, guest blogger Dr. Larry McKinney – who recently retired as Senior Executive Director of Harte Research Institute – shares insights from his career.

As we move through and past Harte Research Institute’s 20th anniversary, I often think about Ed Harte’s simple admonition to all of us that are part of the institute to simply make a difference.

Dr. Larry McKinney. Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Some would say and have said, that such a cliché is a meaningless catch phrase. They would be wrong in my opinion because this simple trope reminds HRI every day that we remain focused on actions that positively affect people’s health and well-being. A multi-objective strategic plan may detail how to best do that, but the goal is plain enough in just those three words to constantly reinforce yourself even if you cannot recall a word of the strategic plan.

It is easy for us in academia to lose sight of that goal. In academia, publications and grants are the markers of success, basically a numbers game, often pursued in a very sheltered and confined world. According to Page Smith, award winning historian at the University of California, “The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless. It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. . . It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.” That is a harsh assessment, but the fact that 98% of articles published in the arts and humanities are never cited by another researcher and in social sciences it is 75%, does make the point. Even in the so-called hard sciences, 25% of articles are never cited. 

HRI does not fit in that particular academic mold and neither do more and more institutes and universities. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is an example of a university trying to break that mold. HRI and TAMUCC both emphasize directed or problem-focused research that starts with addressing a need, most often a human need, rather than inquiry or basic research. Both types of research are important, but I do think it is easier for smaller entities like HRI and TAMUCC to be more responsive, nimble even, in addressing evolving problems. It is also a way for us to compete with the behemoths of academia that have the resources, stature, and depth to do both.

To that end I often use my own catch phrase: People are part of the environment, both the problem and solution.

It was a lesson I learned from 23 years as a resource manager and regulator at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). I came to the realization that the science was straight-forward, maybe not easy but predictable. Solving resource problems from endangered species protection to fisheries management, accounted for only twenty percent of the issues that came before the TPWD Commission for decisions. The other eighty percent of issues, often the most contested and difficult, were people issues. The how, when, and where of allocating limited resources, and what conservation, restoration, and protection means to different individuals and groups.

This is why HRI works, why we have grown so rapidly in both influence and funding. The truly trans-disciplinary nature of the institute, pioneering and unique twenty years ago and now widely recognized and embraced as an effective model for problem-solving. Here at HRI the chairs of socioeconomics and marine policy and law are the glues that bind our expertise in ecology, chemistry, and geosciences into an effective team of problem solvers. To have been part of that and see it continue to accelerate into the future with a cadre of young, talented, and dedicated researchers and students is the best reward possible for fifty years of trying to make a difference.

Dr. Larry McKinney with students and volunteers for the 2017 Harte of the Gulf Film Competition. Photo by Larry Lloyd.

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