Can public-private partnerships work for Extension?

As those of us who work on dwindling Extension dollars realize, public funding for Extension services has been gradually decreasing. Some universities have closed or combined county Extension offices, and others have debated eliminating Extension programs entirely. If the current trend continues, it’s clear that those running Extension programs will need options to keep Extension alive. A peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management suggests that partnerships between Extension programs and private organizations, including industry, might be one of these options.

Although the article focuses primarily on Extension relationships with industry, other examples of public collaborations with private organizations have been forming in the last several years. For example, Growing Produce highlights one such partnership between food giant General Mills and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to build and protect pollinator habitat.

We at the Southern IPM Center are neither promoting nor arguing against such partnerships. In some cases, when funding is primarily through federal means, partnerships with private organizations may be difficult or even impossible. Other Extension specialists fear that partnerships with industry representatives may give the appearance of bias in research conclusions. However, the conversation about such partnerships is a worthwhile endeavor, so we pose the ideas in this article as food for thought.

Although federal funding for Extension once overshadowed funding for research, that is no longer the case, the authors of the article argue. As federal funding has declined, states have picked up more of the financial responsibility for Extension. By 2012, states were paying about 80 percent of their Extension budget, as opposed to 49 percent in 2000. The larger funding role for states has left some Extension programs vulnerable to legislative cuts or even elimination.

In recent years, industry has taken a more active role in providing educational events that include information on products and pest management options, often providing continuing education credits. Examples of events or webinars are the American Society of Agronomy webinars and commodity-sponsored conferences. The Focus On… series at the Plant Management Network website is a good example of a private-public partnership to educate growers on crop practices.

Many Extension programs are already turning to industry for additional funding for events such as field days and grower meetings and find the relationship works well. In addition to being able to finance items such as meals or travel, the Extension specialists retain the freedom to organize the meetings. Other specialists refrain from including industry in educational events because of their concern about how such involvement might be perceived.

The authors, one of whom has worked in both public and private organizations, suggest that while Extension-industry partnerships are already forming, the collaboration between public and private entities can be improved. They created a rating system to evaluate the effectiveness of each collaboration to expose weaknesses and strengthen future partnerships.

The criteria for the rating scale includes the following:

  • cohesiveness (partitioned or integrated)
  • depth of engagement (administrative or substantive)
  • trust (trusting or not)
  • motive (proactive or reactive)
  • sustainability (short-term versus long-term impacts)
  • type of learning (unrelated or synergistic)

The authors use the rating guide to evaluate two case studies: one in Hawaii where Extension and industry collaborated on an insecticide resistance management plan for diamondback moth, and the other in Texas that involved range and pasture tours to teach people about integrated pest management.

The diamondback moth plan developed after overuse of spinosad caused massive insecticide treatment failures for diamondback moth, a priority pest of crucifers. Extension staff from the University of Hawaii and staff with Dow AgroSciences collaborated to develop educational programs for growers and to address the overuse of spinosad. Dow removed crucifers from spinosad labels for 18 months, giving time for Extension specialists to educate growers about proper insecticide rotation and for susceptible populations of diamondback moths to return. Extension staff took charge of most of the education, and Dow personnel oversaw the labeling of the product and contributed information about the product to the Extension workshops.

The rating scale returned relatively low scores for cohesiveness, depth of engagement and motive because of the partitioned and reactive nature of the initiative, but trust, sustainability and type of learning received higher scores because the trust between the two entities ensured a long-lasting relationship that had the potential to be more synergistic in the future.

The Texas example focused on herbicide issues for weed control in forage production. As a result of the 2011-12 drought and price increases for corn feedstocks, brush and weed management became more critical for ranchers. New weed products were being added for forage production, but Texas A&M AgriLife specialists saw a potential for herbicide resistance if growers and ranchers did not rotate among all weed management strategies.

Texas AgriLife teamed up with Dow AgroSciences to develop a workshop series called the “Range and Pasture Heritage Tour.” The tour included plot tours, demonstrations, equipment training, workshops and classes to teach ranchers about the issues of forage production. Dow contributed herbicide expertise, communication and funding, while Texas A&M AgriLife scientists took care of the scientific piece of the tour.

The event received high marks on the rating scale. The event integrated the expertise of both parties and took a proactive approach to a future problem. Both parties were involved in the planning and delivery of the training. The most telling factor of success of the event was the impact it had on the audience.

“Attendees left the field day understanding how they could manage their brush and weed problems using a large toolbox of both chemical and nonchemical methods,” say the authors.

Although some Extension staff are skeptical about partnering with industry on education, the examples provided in the article show the benefits of having such a collaboration. As the authors explain, although some Extension specialists fear that industry involvement in educational events may lead to promotion of one product over another, each pesticide company depends on competing products or strategies to ensure longevity of its product.

In addition, as agricultural and pest issues become more complex, public and private interests will need to depend on each other to solve them, as USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Director Sonny Ramaswamy said:

“The complexities of addressing our nation’s nutritional security in the context of the abiotic and biotic constraints, including climate change, diminishing land and water resources, environmental degradation, pests, and changing incomes and diets, will require that the research and extension community convenes the intellectual and monetary resources of the public and private sectors.”

Source: Krell, R.K., Fisher, M.L., and Steffey, K.L. (2016). A proposal for public and private partnership in extension. Journal of Integrated Pest Management. 7 (1): 4; 1-10. Doi: 10.1093/jipm/pmw001

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