Extension’s role in controversial issues

Recently I came across this abstract in the Journal of Extension:

The CES can make a major contribution to the resolution of environmental disputes in this country if we choose to do so. Quite a few faculty already have the education, skills, and vision to be effective in this arena. Many others, with additional training, would probably be more willing to take calculated risks and devote sustained effort in this direction. We have the potential. Are we ready to take the risk and make the commitment?

So what do think?  What are your perspectives and experiences in dealing with controversial issues?

Oh, and by the way, the author was Emmett Fiske from Cooperative Extension at Washington State University-Pullman. It was published in 1991. Here is the link to the full article: http://www.joe.org/joe/1991fall/a8.php

Mike Lambur

9 thoughts on “Extension’s role in controversial issues

  1. David Mellor

    Perhaps the greatest controversial issue of our time, at least regarding natural resources, is climate change. The role of a state extension agency is unclear in such a matter, as it is a global issue, and the political controversy makes relying on just scientific consensus risky. But as a leading scientific outreach organization, it would be great to take more time to inform and educate.

    Reply
    1. Mike Lambur

      David,

      Thanks for your comment. I wonder though if climate change might be too big of an issue. It is controversial indeed. Do you think we have a sufficient research base, in general, and at our land grants to tackle this one? And, are their controversial issues that we should not be addressing? Just thinking out loud.

      Mike

      Reply
  2. DB Heath

    If not an Extension agent, then who? Who is better to provide the unbiased information that will get people thinking and challenging their thoughts. Great opportunity to showcase our research based backgrounds.

    Reply
    1. Mike Lambur

      Doris,

      I agree. As I replied to David, are there controversial issues that we should not address? Let us know your thoughts.

      Mike

      Reply
  3. David Mellor

    There has been a longstanding cultural divide between those who value the natural world because of its inherent worth and those whose livelihood depends on the natural world. A typical example is timber use: the idea of “sustainable forestry” is an oxymoron to many folks with whom I work, but a valuable and sustainable use of land and resources for many private and commercial landowners. Extension can foster dialogue and communication between these and other groups.

    As for climate change, it does feel “too big” for a single state extension agency to tackle, as it takes national and international action to make a difference. However, education is a primary goal of university outreach and there are many great educational resources that should be emphasized and used.

    Reply
  4. Laura Siegle

    This is tough. When we discuss things like GM crops, the use of pesticides, crop management, animal confinement, etc, I think it is fair to say that there is often a consensus from the scientific community that we can can lean on for guidance for our stance. The complication is that people have lots of feelings about these issues, whether or not those are science-based feelings, and we could drive away potential Extension users and miss an opportunity to educate by “advertising” hard lines on divisive issues. I try to value and consider the thoughts and opinions of clients, but I don’t necessarily want a respectful approach from me to be taken as a validation of unscientific (or at least, partially unscientific) thought in the mind of the person I’m speaking with. Some agents are more comfortable than me at respectfully disagreeing with clients and explaining their reasons in a candid manner, so perhaps the answer really is to engage clients in these discussions more often IF (and when) they are open to it, in the right environment. How do we go about advocating for science (in cases where there is a consensus) and good critical thinking in these discussions when we must also respect the “right to an opinion” and need to make everyone feel welcome to use Extension? Taking a stance on an issue and openly advocating for it truly feels “risky.” I find it easier to maintain a hard stance on certain topics in my personal life and discussions with friends, while I simultaneously try to be a bit more accommodating in my work life for the diversity of opinions about ag issues expressed by clients. Hopefully this was the type of discussion you were going for in this blog post-if I’m off-track we can table this particular topic!

    Reply
    1. Michael Lambur Post author

      Laura,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you sharing your perspective. My perspective on Extension’s involvement in controversial issues is that we don’t take a stance on the issue. Rather, we provide a venue where the issue can be discussed in a respectful way with both/all sides being appropriately represented. I see our role as bringing both/all sides in the issue together and facilitating a balanced discussion of the merits and concerns of all. I think this is tough, because often times one side does not even want to hear and/or appreciate the other sides’ point(s) of view. And when we, as Extension professionals, have a particular opinion on the issue, it is hard to remain neutral.

      What do others think?

      Mike

      Reply
      1. Laura Siegle

        In view of what you said, I guess that there are very few absolutes when it comes to ag issues, production practices, etc, so this isn’t something I commonly come across, but I want to walk a fine line between being a good listener/being capable of discussing both sides of every issue AND advocating for proven science, if/when it is there and there are not social and cultural considerations that need to be weighted. No matter what, everyone has a right to an opinion, but some opinions are “righter” than others and merit more attention/discussion. I hope that makes sense-this isn’t an everyday problem for me at the moment, just something I think about privately when I read articles and comments about such matters online. Many of these debates and discussions take place on other forums or out in the industry.

        I think the bigger problem, as you mentioned, is getting people to listen to both sides when you DO really need to have an open-minded, two-sided discussion on topics that regularly come up in interactions with clients. THAT problem does come into my office-as an example using one of the issues I mentioned previously, people will sometimes tell me things they believe about GM crops that have informed their conclusions about eating/not eating GM foods, and the premises on which they form these conclusions are sometimes demonstrably wrong. It would be false to say that we can’t have a respectful discussion about pros and cons of this technology (or whatever other divisive issue was in question), and if we could simply impart a better understanding of it/the background behind it, we could then respectfully allow the client to draw their own conclusions accordingly. However, you are dead in the water if they are holding onto misinformation that misinforms the discussion in the first place and leads the person to draw conclusions based on a faulty foundation. I think we will just have to keep on educating in a balanced manner when the opportunity arises, making every effort to be both scientists and gracious conversationalists, and developing relationships with clients so that they are comfortable having challenging discussions with us and others. And finally, in a perfect world, if every person spent a year visiting all kinds of US ag operations, many of our problems would be solved! I can keep wishing.

        Reply

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