Connecting the Town and Gown: Cooperative Extension

Over the last few months, I’ve seen a few efforts proposed to better connect universities to local community research needs. While whole practices and skill sets around participatory action research, community-based research, etc., exist, these don’t quite meet the need these recent proposals attempt to address. These proposals are not talking one faculty research program implementing participatory methods, they want a fundamentally different relationship between researchers and the community surrounding them – which, in many ways, gets back to the roots of many universities in the United States: land-grant universities.

In 1862 and 1890, the Morrill Acts granted land to create universities to focus on practical education: agriculture, science, military, and engineering. Students and faculty research from these institutions, in return, would advance important industries and changing social class relations. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 later extended the mission of these schools to extend the research results to users – creating the cooperative extension system. In short, science in service of society.

Later efforts also created sea-grant and space-grant colleges, or added these missions to the agricultural focus of many extension schools. However, to this day, faculty at extension schools have some percentage of their time dedicated to outreach/extension activities and house entire extension programs like 4-H and Master Gardener programs. Cooperative extension is poised to respond to community research needs and have recently taken on science in the news to help landowners decide whether to allow fracking, how to help our ailing bees,  and how to incorporate sustainable aquaculture into our food system. Especially in these efforts, extension services facilitate cooperative research between producers and faculty to be able to answer questions with immediate impact. The innovation and creativity that stems from these research programs would not be possible without the strong relationships between university faculty, staff, and local producers and practitioners.

These large and successful efforts are often forgotten in conversations about failed town/gown relationships and disconnected ivory tower attitudes from faculty. There are elements of truth to these characterization of the academy, among an onslaught of other complaints about the broken academic system these days. For instance, 31% of World Bank technical reports are never downloaded, and therefore never reach their intended policy audience. The paywalls and technical language of most academic journals – widely considered the currency of academic scholarship – make it difficult or impossible for members of the public to access the results of most research. It’s also important to remember that “the public” also includes hard-working employees of nonprofits and government agencies that may not be able to afford the exorbitant journal subscription fees and therefore use said research in their work.

Yet, for those who are looking for a better relationship between universities and the communities they occupy, we don’t need to recreate the wheel. There are good examples in every county in the US of extension research making the lives of local residents better. Many of the regions I’ve heard pushing for better university relations are seeking something that they’ve lost in the form of extension. For example, the Mid-Atlantic Water Program pulled together scholars of Chesapeake Bay Universities to think about large-scale watershed issues collectively. Their funding has ended, so those scholars have lost the ability to spend time on this kind of research. Many likely returned to the ivory tower, where they can focus on developing the niche science of their field in the abstract, rather than grounding their research in the communities of the Chesapeake. Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Program and others are trying to find more funding or other arrangements that can re-form the efforts of the Mid-Atlantic Water Program.

While state’s extension system will have different priorities, there are a few examples. Crossing the land grant/sea grant divide is the North Carolina Marine Aquaculture Research Center. Inside this facility, which is located on the grounds of a working sturgeon farm, producers, students, and faculty team up to test systems of dealing with fish manure, new feeding systems and formulations, and develop system for new types of fish to be cultured. On land, the Master Forest Owner Program invites forest owners to a 4-day workshop to teach them about new cropping systems, techniques, and sources of revenue that might come from their land. Volunteers can go test these ideas on their property and economic context and host scientists to study pest dynamics, biogeochemistry, salamanders, and other forest ecology questions in their working forests. Cooperative extension agents are also spearheading the growth in backyard chickens and bees, teaching classes, providing information, and testing small systems in backyards across America.

Maybe it’s time for extension schools to assert their role in the community again, and make themselves a household resource. Have a question about the garden? Call extension. Want to know how to decrease hog waste in the Bay? Call extension. That’s what the agents are there for. Extension schools also blur the line between research, application, and outreach to the point where the definition of and incentive structure for an academic are different. In a world where academia needs a shake-up, extension can also provide a model for a productive scientist in service of society, producing information in partnership with community members in order to support livelihoods and help do our jobs in a more sustainable, healthy way.


*** author’s note: I’m extremely biased, in case you couldn’t tell. I attended an extension school for my undergraduate education and was introduced to research through a working sugarbush, understanding milkweeds better for keeping many kinds alive in the wild, and how polycropping can decrease pests in tomato production. I also enjoyed the fruits of other people’s research in the form of apples and ice cream. I emerged from college, unlike so many others these days, with a head full of tangible farming and forestry skills as well as research experience. I remain committed to the values of cooperative research to this day.