Two degrees of separation

The vision of VIMS' founder continues to benefit the Commonwealth

William & Mary’s most famous alumnus, Thomas Jefferson, is renowned for championing the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The The founder of VIMS, former W&M Biology Chair Donald W. Davis, is renowned among the marine science community for another important separation—that between regulation and research.

Davis set forth his separation argument in “How the College Can Aid the Oyster Industries” a paper that appeared in the October 24, 1930 issue of Science, and in a subsequent  “Memorandum on Seafood Investigations.”

Davis’s argument still guides VIMS’ advisory service mission today, a mission that makes VIMS unique among institutes of marine science.

According to Davis, because state fisheries biologists had to both make and enforce regulations, they were forced to “neglect their responsibilities for (doing) scientific investigation and development.” Davis thus recommended that research and education be separated from regulation:

“These contrasting functions being highly divergent in type and method it is appropriate that the formal investigational and educational function be separated from the regulatory duties of the Commissioner of Fisheries and assigned to the College.”

One of Davis’s contemporaries, Hampton seafood planter Richard Armstrong, voiced another benefit of the separation, calling it “a plan that would assure permanent and non-political interest in the development of our sea foods.”

Virginia’s General Assembly recognized the wisdom of Davis’s vision, and in 1950 formalized VIMS’ advisory mandate in section 28.2 of the Code of Virginia. The Code now contains 18 separate mandates specific to VIMS, from management of state-owned bottomlands to studies of invasive species.

VIMS and its advisory-service clients in government, industry, and the public continue to value the autonomy that Davis’s vision gave to researchers at VIMS, allowing them to freely provide unbiased scientific advice concerning the status of the Commonwealth’s marine resources. VIMS’ reputation as an “honest broker” in often-contentious marine-resource issues is a continuing testament to that vision and to those who have carried it forward into the 21st century.