October 15, 2019
Bud Ris Focuses on Being as Innovative as Possible

Bud Ris: You need to build a constituency to support your case.
Before he accepted the position of president and CEO of the New England Aquarium in Boston, Bud Ris set a personal goal to remain innovative and encourage those around him to be innovative as well. Now, Ris uses his innovation to teach others to “live blue” by protecting the oceans.

Here is his story:

I have always had an interest and passion for marine conservation and the health of our oceans. I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, so I have a bit of salt water in my veins.

Prior to my position at the New England Aquarium, I spent the last 25-30 years of my career in environmental policy and conservation work. I worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for their coastal zone management plan in the 1970s. I was a senior fellow at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, and served as president and executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge for 22 years.

The aquarium was doing a search and asked me to interview for the position of president and CEO because they wanted to increase the work on marine conservation and integrate it into more exhibits at the facility. I have a lot of experience with environmental issues, managing and fundraising for nonprofits, and developing communications strategies to deliver a mission, so my background was a good fit for the position.

Coming to the aquarium, my work changed dramatically. I moved from a national and international focus to a much more local focus. Today, I spend a lot more time dealing with local political issues and the future of the city, whereas before I used to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. One reason I took this job was to work at an aquarium located right in the middle of a new center of gravity for Boston. So many new changes are taking place in the area and it is great to be part of shaping what will happen here in the future.

Shortly after I arrived at the aquarium, we developed a new strategic plan. The plan called expanding and strengthening our conservation work, an overhaul of our exhibit path, a modernization of our exhibits, and a new focus on reaching a broader audience in our educational programs. A significant portion of the aquarium has been upgraded – we have a new marine mammal exhibit over the water and we are about to build an entirely new shark and ray exhibit.

Today we look to engage people in our mission, encouraging them to “live blue.” By asking people to live blue, we’re teaching them how to take more responsibility for improving the state of the oceans. We want visitors to realize they can reduce their carbon footprint, reduce their use of plastics, and choose the right types of seafood to buy, cook, or eat so we can help restore fish stocks throughout the ocean.

As a leader at the aquarium, I try to remember what I learned while working with the Union of Concerned Scientists. I realized then that it is important to look myself in the mirror every few years and refresh the way I do things to make sure I am being as innovative as possible. I also want to make sure I am encouraging and allowing my staff to be innovative. I think what is important here is to allow a very capable staff to put their best foot forward and to get their ideas on the table to help shape the future of the organization.

Henry Kendall, who was the chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists while I worked there, had a very great impact on me. Kendall was a Nobel laureate in physics and understood that science alone is not going to change the world, that you need to combine good science with an effective communication strategy and build a constituency to support your case.

I brought that idea with me when I came to the aquarium. One of the biggest challenges that I love about my job is that every year about 1.3 million people come through our facility, so it is a huge opportunity to engage a significant amount of those people and get them interested in the oceans. This is our opportunity to build a constituency and give the oceans a voice.

As told to Jessica Owen, July 2010.

Learn more about the New England Aquarium by clicking here.

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