Last week saw the publication of a paper that has undergone a slow gestation through the year. It’s an opinion piece published in the new open access journal Metabarcoding and Metagenomics and describes some of the lessons I learned during the development of a new diatom metric based on metabarcoding data. The science behind these projects is written up in reports and papers, but that only tells part of the story. Applied science needs a context, and my paper is more about how the new science fits into a wider process of managing change in large and ponderous government agencies.
That’s where my title comes from: “Adapting the (fast-moving) world of molecular ecology to the (slow-moving) world of environmental regulation”. The new science of metabarcoding is developing fast and some of the assumptions that we made at the start of the project have now been overtaken by developments in methods. Yet the regulatory systems into which these methods will be integrated need to be stable and continual “tweaks” to optimise the system would not be welcome. “Ponderous”, in this context, is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine driving in your local area and finding all the speed limits had changed at the whim of an official and without any consultation or advance warning. Finding a balance between these two needs: for the best possible methods and a stable basis for regulation seems to be one of the biggest challenges those of us with an interest in molecular ecology face over the next few years.
My own view, reflecting back over the discussions I’ve had over the past few years, is that this is possible, but that the UK’s environment agencies will need some major structural changes for this to come about. As I was reviewing the proofs of the paper, I came across Tim Harford’s fascinating podcast Cautionary Tales and, in particular, an episode called “How Britain Invented, then Ignored, Blitzkrieg”. The point he made in this episode was that improvements to individual components of a system (tanks, in his example) have little value if the overall architecture within which those components operate are not also regularly updated. He cited a paper by Rebecca Henderson and Kim Clark which, had I seen it sooner, would have strengthened the principal argument in my paper.
Henderson and Clark’s examples were drawn from manufacturing industry, but we can use the same kind of language to make their framework relevant to ecological assessment. Broadly speaking, an ecological assessment method (using diatoms, in this case, but it could also be invertebrates, macrophytes or fish) is one component in a larger decision-making “machine”. Replacing the existing methods, based on specialist biologists painstakingly analysing samples to identify and enumerate the taxa present by one based on metabarcoding technology constitutes a “modular innovation”, using the terminology in the table below. That might well work in some cases (replacing an analogue by a digital telephone, for example, doesn’t fundamentally affect the way we communicate with one another). However, the question that Henderson and Clark were asking was what happens when an innovation interacts differently with other components, in which case a shift in the entire product design might be necessary.
A framework for defining innovation (after Henderson and Clark, 1990)
|Linkages between core concepts and components||
Harford used the comparative fortunes of IBM and Apple in his podcast (Henderson and Clark’s paper was written before the tech revolutions, otherwise I’m sure they would have done so too). Apple did not invent the mouse or the graphical user interface, but they were able to fit these into a radical new architecture of components, opening up an enormous market for consumer-friendly gadgets. IBM, by contrast, was the market leader for mainframe computers, but its thinking and organisational structures were so focussed on these that they were not nimble enough to adapt to this new world.
The question that arises when using metabarcoding in a regulatory capacity is whether this technology just constitutes a “modular innovation” or whether a broader refit of the organisations that use the technology is necessary in order to maximise their benefits. My argument is that metabarcoding constitutes a “radical innovation” partly because the way that individuals interpret metabarcoding data is different to the way that they would traditional data, which means that the value that a biologist can add to evidence for a regulatory decision on his/her locale will change, and because the gathering of evidence by traditional means constituted an “unstructured training program” for freshwater biologists that gave them a broad awareness of freshwater ecology in their region.
Furthermore, the rate of development of these new technologies is such that a better way needs to be find of balancing innovation and regulatory stability beyond the very ponderous approach in force in the UK at the moment. There are ways of doing this, but the mindset in the administrations needs to change before these can be implemented and there would also need to be more administrators to oversee this process, a big ask in a public sector still limping along on much reduced budgets.
One of the biggest lessons we learned was, in fact, that if you want to learn lessons you need to get stuck in and have a go. There are plenty of review papers in the academic literature now saying how metabarcoding might be used for ecological assessment, and plenty of discussion about these new technologies within the hierarchies of the government agencies. But you can only go so far with theory: not all of the challenges we encountered were anticipated and, certainly, not all the assumptions that drove the original commissioning of the project turned out to be correct. The only way of testing these was to take a step into the unknown. We learned the hard way, but maybe future projects will benefit.
Henderson, R.M. & Clark, K.B. (1990). Architectural innovation: the reconfiguration of existing product technologies and the failure of existing firms. Administrative Science Quarterly 35: 9-30.