Science and Management
People seem to have a tendency to slip into an “us versus them” mentality about things that are important to them. Ford versus Chevy – sorry Dodge owners. UW versus CSU. Shaken versus stirred. Science versus management. What?!
We have all heard about the “ivory towers” where eggheads answer questions with no relevance to people in the real world. Although I concede that some research endeavors may lack immediate application to pressing problems facing society, categorizing all scientific or research endeavors into such a group is simply inaccurate.
The Wyoming Section of the Society for Range Management held their annual meeting in Sheridan recently, and the theme of the meeting was linking science and management in rangeland ecosystems. Speakers from Wyoming, Texas and California shared information regarding current rangeland research and how we might be able to further strengthen the link between the informational needs of land managers and research efforts undertaken at various levels.
Throughout the presentations and during an open discussion with all participants, several concepts were consistently mentioned that might enhance the connection of research that informs on-the-ground decisions.
Levels of science
There are multiple levels of “scientific” information that can improve management practices.
Some people think only of university or other research institutions doing studies that are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals as science, but in many agricultural and natural resources situations, this is not the case. Just because a three-year, replicated, controlled study is not conducted in four locations throughout the region does not mean that meaningful information is not available.
Rangeland managers routinely collect data through range monitoring programs that can reveal important changes in plant communities, susceptibility to erosion and productivity of their pastures. Citizen scientists can assist in documenting the distribution and spread of problematic invasive species – information that directly affects management programs.
Each of these endeavors can provide meaningful information to land managers depending on the degree of confidence and detail needed in answering the question, and a combination of multiple levels of investigation may lead to more meaningful conclusions over the long-term.
Communication between land managers and scientists is important.
Sometimes, the flow of information in the research process is pretty unidirectional. A researcher seeks funding to investigate a question, sometimes obtains sufficient funding for a project, implements the experiment and publishes results – most often in an academic journal predominantly read by other academics.
This may describe major portions of the process, but a lot of research, especially within an agricultural field, is driven directly by questions from producers or land managers in the region. Many of our Wyoming producers are not shy about contacting their local Extension offices, a cooperative government agency or a university to pose a question that currently has no answer.
Establishing and maintaining relationships between researchers and land managers may be paramount to ensuring effective communication over the long-run.
Some formal programs require producer/stakeholder and researcher communication.
The link between societal need and applicable research was the impetus for establishing land grant universities, such as UW, and that mission is still strong within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which can be found online at westernsare.org, funds research undertaken directly by farmers and ranchers or cooperative programs between producers and research personnel.
The new Agriculture Producer Research Grant Program, administered by Wyoming Department of Agriculture, funds research that directly addresses research priorities expressed by Wyoming’s producers.
Whether the dialogue between land managers and researchers is because of a formal framework or more personal in nature, such interactions encourage research that will address relevant and meaningful issues.
Time is of the essence.I should probably expand this to time and resources are of the essence.
Many of us are impatient, and we want our questions answered now. Immediate response to a question that currently has no answer is practically impossible, unless you just want someone to speculate on what they think might work.
Scientific organizations strive to ensure that unsupported conclusions are not drawn or that results are not misconstrued via the review process. Scientists review the work of others prior to publication to make sure acceptable methodologies are used and errors in interpretation of their observations are minimized. This review process takes time – sometimes it seems like forever – but it serves an important purpose of limiting the amount of misinformation, which could then lead to bad management recommendations, that is shared with the public.
I was encouraged by the discussion at the SRM meeting in Sheridan, where land managers and researchers were able to share their thoughts on how to better integrate our work. Processes are never easy when multiple people with multiple points of view are involved, but discussing questions and potential means of answering those questions should enable us all to improve our management effectiveness.
I encourage you to touch base with your local Extension office or other agencies if you have a need for information and establish a relationship with someone who is familiar with the work that is going on in the state and region.