I will begin with three hypotheses for your consideration:
1. The public research and education organization known as the land grant system which has evolved over the past 130 years is now dysfunctional and like an organism or an ecosystem in which the component parts are no longer functionally integrated (that is, coupled in a mutually supportive manner), the system is slowly dying.
2. The land grant organization has lost its sense of public purpose and in doing so has become internally focused, making it vulnerable to public criticism and external attack.
3. The land grant organization is capable of change and rebirth.
The first two of these hypotheses are based on the assumption that the land grant organization should function as a systemically integrated system to create new knowledge, to encourage learning, and to help people, families, and communities put knowledge to work. The final hypothesis is actually more of an opinion based mostly on hope, faith in organizational capacity to change, and a belief in the social value of research and education. The following sections offer some ideas which may be useful in thinking about how the system might change and perhaps even be reborn. It is recognized however, that change can be like death to the status quo.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
Today the land grant system is splintered and two of the three basic functions, or subsystems of research and extension education are moving apart, fragmenting and dispersing as they attempt to serve different masters without the vision, purpose, or the common stories needed to maintain the integrity or wholeness of the system.
Specifically, I see a research subsystem serving the "masters of the discipline," striving to achieve a self-defined greatness and failing in its primary mission of serving the public good. This subsystem is driven by disciplinary incentives such as peer- review of publications, scientific panel review of grant projects, academic awards and scholarly recognition, and of course the self-fulfilling environment of the tenure review which screens out intellectual diversity resulting in homogeneity and insularity.
On the other hand, I see an extension subsystem serving the legislative and business community "masters," pursuing solutions for social problems, real problems of course, but problems for which they may or may not have any special expertise when compared with other public or private agencies.
The attempt to serve many "masters" will mean the death of the organization as an interdependent organism. The African proverb says, "when you cut the elephant in half, you don't get two elephants - you get one big dead elephant." I propose we need a renewed sense of public purpose and a new (or perhaps a re-discovered) model which ties together the research and extension education components of the system. I believe a goal-oriented model, with the various functions "wired in parallel," would be a more efficient and effective system for creating knowledge that is valued both within the academic disciplines and the user-environment. In this model each function; basic research, applied research, extension education, and user application would be focused on a clearly identified and agreed upon societal goals. Further I suggest that the goals addressed by the integrated system should be determined through public dialogue and active citizen participation.
THE PUBLIC PURPOSE
I believe that a clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution. Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public. But we have difficulty talking about "who is the public -- and what is the public good?" I suggest that many of the current research and extension programs are designed not to serve "the public" but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups. I propose (this is not a new idea) that there are interests, common to all people and each of the special interest groups which we might call "basic human needs" such as: affordable and nutritionally adequate food; adequate clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment, free of violence; opportunities to provide for one's livelihood; and accessible educational opportunities.
Perhaps it would be useful to expect public universities to serve the public good by addressing basic human needs. Colleges of food and agriculture can probably do this best through initiatives in agricultural sustainability, food quality and safety, human nutrition, youth and family development, and environmental integrity. Traditional extension and related research programs of former or current colleges of agriculture may no longer be appropriate in the 1990's. Many agriculture programs which focused on increasing production in the past, now might better serve the public good by addressing environmental and community issues.
Does this mean that the system should abandon its traditional constituents such as farmers. I don't think so. In fact, agricultural universities must work with the farmer groups to address these new and emerging issues effectively. The active participation of agricultural managers and many other businesses is a requisite for successful research and extension education programs on the long-term sustainability of agricultural ecosystems. Nor does it mean the public universities can afford to discount or ignore the special interests of individuals or groups. Rather, I suggest that the land grant system must maintain its intent to serve the special interests of these individual groups, but must do so in ways that also serve the public good. While this seems to be a worthwhile intent, there must also be a means of insuring accountability to the public.
The public agricultural research and education system should not only focus on the public good, but must include mechanisms to ensure accountability to the public good. Toward this end, the process which determines how public funds are used should include an evaluation component which considers the potential impact of research and education on critical public needs. Further, the people most likely to be impacted should be involved in the funding decisions and program review.
A system that approaches this objective was implemented by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program of the North Central Region. This grant review process includes a two step evaluation which begins with an analysis of potential impact of the research. Representatives of groups most likely to be affected, such as farmers, environmentalists, and rural advocates are included in the first stage of the review. This allows the research process to focus on critical issues. The second step of the review is the traditional scientific review by disciplinary peers which ensures scientific quality. This two step review helps to enhance the potential applicability of research results, while ensuring scientific quality. This "sharing of power" will not be possible however, as long as scientists discount the value of experiential or indigenous knowledge.
METHODS OF VALIDATING KNOWLEDGE
It is unlikely that public participation in research and education or in helping to determine priorities will be possible until a broader understanding of the conditions under which knowledge is generated and validated becomes generally accepted. The preference for generation and validation of knowledge through currently accepted scientific methodologies is so widely held by researchers that it is difficult for many to envision any alternative. Nevertheless, an argument can be made that critical rationality (which demands falsification of an abstract hypothesis for validation of knowledge) is a social choice and that other means of generating knowledge may have equal validity. Recently we have seen the authority of scientific methodologies challenged by the feminist and sustainable agriculture movements.
Agricultural researchers claim ownership over the process of establishing the validity of hypotheses or new ideas. Of course we know that both scientists andfarmers create hypotheses. But agricultural scientists believe that farmers ideas don't have "truth-value," until they are tested in ways which scientists understand and respect. This "academic fundamentalism," or the refusal of the academy to value any truth that does not conform to its own professional standards results in poor communication, lack of respect, and limited trust.
Farmers and researchers are likely to hold different views on what is true or valid knowledge. Extension educators are often caught in between. When scientists discount testimonial evidence for example, it is because information generated through random experiences and observations don't meet appropriate universalistic validity checks (that is, it hasn't been shown to be "true" under all conditions). When farmers discount scientific knowledge, it is because those simple cause and effect relationships that may be replicated under controlled, uniform conditions have little practical significance in a complex world. Participatory research, which involves both farmers and agricultural scientists may provide a means to generate and value both knowledge within the scientific disciplinary context and the more complex user environment.
Participatory research integrates knowledge users and professional researchers in a respectful learning environment. All participants are expected to help identify problems, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions, and interpret the results. The outcome of the participatory process is not only new knowledge, but empowered participants, more likely to take action.
One of the expectations of many farmers is that more scientific research be done in "real world" situations, on farms. When participatory research is used, participants may determine that some research is more appropriately done in on-farm situations, others on research farms or in laboratories. The location of the research depends on the problem and the alternative solutions proposed for testing.
The practice of participatory research is becoming more accepted, particularly now that some funding agencies require farmer participation in agricultural research. Many scientists and farmers or other knowledge-users have challenged the current scientific model, not as wrong, but as incomplete. This challenge, while it should be welcomed, is perceived by some scientists to be a personal attack on their belief system. This is unfortunate, as the assumption that a scientific method is above criticism, is itself unscientific. The essence of science is criticism, and neither science nor the university can afford to put its methods above evaluation. It is imperative that both scientists and knowledge-users participate in the research process. The emerging science of agroecology may provide a common ground.
AGROECOLOGY - SYSTEMS SCIENCE FOR AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY
Agroecology is the study of agroecosystems based on the science of ecology. We can think of an agroecosystem as a complex of air, water, soil, plants and animals in a bounded area that humans have modified for the purpose of agricultural production. It exists in an environmental setting which defines the resources (inputs) available, and a social setting which conditions how producers and consumers interact with each other and the natural ecosystem. An agroecosystem may be a field, a farm, or a larger region such as the Connecticut River Valley. The boundaries of an agroecosystem exist not only in space but also in time, and have physical, biological and socio-economic dimensions. To begin to understand agroecosystems, we must assume that the behavior of a complex system can be understood with knowledge of only a few functional relationships or "emergent properties." Three of the properties of agroecosystems that might be useful to enhance our understanding and ultimate management of those systems are productivity, sustainability, and social equity.
Productivity is the quantity of product or output from an agroecosystem per unit of input (or resource such as land area). Sustainability is consistency of productivity over time, in spite of long term destabilizing influences such as; loss of farmland to urbanization, increasing soil salinity or soil erosion, declining product prices, etc. Sustainability can be thought of as long term productivity, which may not be achieved unless we deal with depletion of natural resources, degradation of the environment, and disruption of social systems. Finally, social equity is a measure of the extent to which both resources (inputs) and products (outputs) of a system are shared throughout the human population.
These emergent properties may be thought of as either neutral descriptors for purposes of understanding, or they may be used as indicators of performance - measures of success. An acceptance of agroecology and participatory research as critical components of public research and education programs would require a major change in thinking by many scientists. Nevertheless, some of the leaders at public universities are already exploring these ideas.
A RECOGNIZED NEED FOR CHANGE
Recent discussions among university presidents have focused on enhancing the productivity of knowledge developed by public universities. At the National President's Invitational Forum on Outreach held in 1993, Peter McGrath, NASULGC President, said; "I believe the order of the day is thoughtful change brought about by leaders and supportive trustees, presidents and chancellors who make restructuring and revitalization of the land-grant mission a personal priority, and extension directors who, with other university academic officers, can help put together the new structures of service to society through outreach."
Many public university presidents have recognized that "productivity of knowledge" is just as important as the "production of knowledge." Bryce Jordan,president emeritus of Pennsylvania State University, called for an appropriate balance between research and extension education so that "...public research universities...may make themselves far more valuable to the American people."
In conclusion, I argue that a new understanding of the public mission of the land grant university is needed to improve the capacity of our system to serve its primary customers; the citizens, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant university. Teaching, research, and extended education should each be perceived as a public service, since they each contribute to the public good. A new ethos of public engagement must emerge which nurtures the spirit of connectivity within the university and between the university and the external community. This will not occur without much dialogue and heated debate. I'll conclude with a quote;
The university should be: "...a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions."
A. Bartlett Giamatti
Former President of Yale University and Commissioner of Baseball
Personally, I look forward to the debate.
Comments on the ideas presented here are encouraged. Please send your comments to:
John M. Gerber
Associate Dean and Associate Director
University of Massachusetts
Cooperative Extension System
212 Stockbridge Hall
Amherst, MA 01003
November 1, 1994