Practice of Science Friday: The Roles of Researchers and Extension-Like Science Experts

The main role for researchers in applied science is to provide papers and other information that people can use.  In my analogy, they produce information to be used by someone- they blow out information and can’t necessarily control where it lands or how, or if it is used.

The main role for what we might call Extension-like activities, Forest Service folks in State and Private (nurseries, pathology and entomology), and experts in the National Forests (from fish and wildlife bios to social scientists)  is to sift through piles of research provided by researchers and use that to advice landowners or others making decisions about forests.  They search out  information and try to make sense of all the different studies and approaches, in light of the needs of the people they work for.  For the lack of a better term, I’ll put them all into one category- SSME’s or science subject matter experts. They vacuum up information from a variety of sources, as opposed to producing it.

Their roles are equally important, and complementary.  You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out, though, that there might be disagreements and tensions (turf battles) between people in these somewhat overlapping roles. In some federal organizations, it has led to frustration as practitioners sometimes want to find out things, but they are not allowed to do research (based on their funding) and whatever they want to test looks like research to someone, so they are told they can’t do it. Basically they are told that their questions are not important enough to be funded as research, but are too “researchy” for the practitioners to do. Like any other field of activity, overlapping roles works well when people see eye to eye- not so much when they don’t.

Both groups are trained in their field. Many in the SSME world have Ph.D.’s and most have master’s.  Many researchers also, through their own personalities, or with some encouragement from their institutions, also do this kind of extension-like work.  In the past, there has been a tendency for people funded to do research to look down on people doing extension-like activities.  In fact, some folks don’t even seem to know that they exist.

Here’s one story- in the mid 90’s I worked in Forest Service Research and Development and I was one of a team working on improving the linkages between science and management.  Here’s a link to a copy of the report from 1995- “Navigating into the Future: Rensselaerville Roundtable: Integrating Science and Policymaking.”

As hard as I tried – my experience showing that SSME’s were the critical people to getting the best science into management- SSME’s were basically invisible in this document (I did get two paragraphs, titled Technical Specialists, on page 9. It was all about how researchers and decision-makers needed to work together- guidelines  for improving the institutional coordination.   you will understand how perhaps the emphasis on researchers doing SSME work left a gaping hole in acknowledging support for “real” SSME’s.

I don’t know that this is general or my own experience. When I started with the Forest Service in the late 70’s, my expertise was supported to the tune of financial support for a post-doc at North Carolina State.  By the end of my career (when I was Planning Director) I was told that I could not be on government time, nor give a government affiliation in the program, to give a talk at an SAF meeting when the invitation came with travel. I don’t think it was all intentionally against the Forest Services being better at science, there was just a “shouldn’t travel” factor that rose and fell in importance randomly.  Of all the Chiefs, Jack Ward Thomas was the one who really cared about promoting that kind of expertise. I couldn’t find a link to his idea of promoting professionalism by leaving experts in place and able to increase their pay.

Next post: The Land Grant Model and the Key Role of Extension

6 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: The Roles of Researchers and Extension-Like Science Experts”

  1. Related to this is the enormous lack of experimental adaptive management in all our natural-resources management agencies. FS produced a great review of the concept of adaptive management and the failures in the Service, several years ago. The natural world is too complex and dynamic to expect that the researchers “will tell me how to manage the land”accurately enough that I do not have to evaluate the results. Staff turnover is a problem for the adaptive management approach, as well.

  2. Sharon,
    As Smokey’s denier in chief of modeling and long established scientific consensus on predictions on a half century of anthropogenic climate disruption, you mat want to feature a separate TSW article bullseye-ing this:

    It references a soon to be finalized and published paper with more evidence that Smokey’s smoking gun misfiring on scientific credibility has another shot to take at naysaying away the following discussion. (Lock and load.)

    ”Climate models dating back to the early 1970s accurately foretold how greenhouse gases would fuel a hotter future, such as the July heat wave that sent Parisians flocking to the Fountaine du Trocadéro. SAMUEL BOIVIN/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
    Even 50-year-old climate models correctly predicted global warming

    By Warren CornwallDec. 4, 2019 , 12:00 PM
    Climate change doubters have a favorite target: climate models. They claim that computer simulations conducted decades ago didn’t accurately predict current warming, so the public should be wary of the predictive power of newer models. Now, the most sweeping evaluation of these older models—some half a century old—shows most of them were indeed accurate.

    “How much warming we are having today is pretty much right on where models have predicted,” says the study’s lead author, Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Climate scientists first began to use computers to predict future global temperatures in the early 1970s. That’s when newfound computing power coincided with a growing realization that rising carbon dioxide levels could boost global temperatures. As the issue gained public attention, critics questioned the reliability of rudimentary model predictions….”


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