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Science’s future: telling the story of your data

Posted by Christopher Gambino | December 11, 2014

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

The opportunity

Christopher Gambino - student guest blogger
Christopher Gambino – student guest blogger

A conference focused on sustainable agriculture?!  Yep, and I got to attend.

I am a PhD Candidate at Washington State University where I am among a cohort of National Science Foundation IGERT students. This is a multidisciplinary doctoral training program designed to create a new generation of scientists who seamlessly integrate nitrogen cycle science for effective communication with public policy makers. As such, my training allows for engagement in food, agriculture, and environmental policy dialogue. In those interactions I usually find myself to be one of the few voices with a holistic perspective of sustainability.

My passion for creating  more sustainable agriculture led me to attend the Tilth Producers of Washington’s 40th Anniversary Conference (T40), in Vancouver, Washington on Nov. 7 – 9. Tilth Producers “promotes ecologically sound, economically viable and socially equitable farming practices that improve the health of our communities and natural environment” and this organization started 40 years ago! Needless to say, I was excited for the opportunity to listen to and learn what these producers and this community were doing at the forefront of a sustainable agriculture movement.

The proceedings

I observed an interesting mix of communication of science, experiences, and beliefs. This is in stark contrast to the numerous academic conferences I have attended. The reception to presenters was astounding. The audience wanted to know how to implement suggestions and findings with little (not sure if I heard any) criticisms of methods or replications or validations. The discussions of phytonutrient levels in specialty crops, spruce tips as natural Gatorade, and diabetes treatments from berries were all held in high regard despite the lack of scientific data. The scientist in me wanted to critique every claim; yet, I too tended to agree with the core principles of each message.

Which brings me to the crux of the post…story telling versus data.

There is a great need for both. Unfortunately, the two do not usually exist together. Not because they cannot, but because few individuals take the proper time to become masters in both realms. WSU wheat breeder Stephen Jones, PhD was, however, exemplary in both roles. Dr. Jones is trained as a plant breeder and well published in his field. He also told an engaging story of the loss of nutrients in wheat from both historical breeding practices and processing methods. He spoke to the flaws of industrialized agriculture which prevent ways to process, store, and market the varieties of wheat with enhanced nutritive value and flavor.

Taking time to know the Board

Maurice & Beth Robinette of Lazy R Ranch near Cheney talked with T40 participants about the Pacific Northwest Center for Holistic Management. Photo: Mark Musick
Maurice & Beth Robinette of Lazy R Ranch near Cheney talked with T40 participants about the Pacific Northwest Center for Holistic Management. Photo: Mark Musick

I was fortunate to sit down with Tilth Producers board member Maurice Robinette of Lazy R Ranch during my time at T40. Ever heard of Allan Savory (Savory Institute)? Well Mr. Robinette was trained under Dr. Savory and Dr. Don Nelson (former WSU Professor-Beef Extension Specialist in Dept. Animal Sciences). Thanks to a Kellogg Foundation grant written and received by Dr. Nelson, a limited number of Northwest ranchers were able to learn and adopt “holistic management” techniques back in the late 1990s taught by the Savory Institute.

I wondered what caused him to risk traditional ranching knowledge for a new management style, so I asked. He equated his buy-in partly to his sociology degree through which he was exposed to paradigms and paradigm shifts. He was intrigued by the “holism” paradigm and in practice it proved to get the result he expected. His trial and adoption of holistic management occurred about 15 years after he bought his own cattle to feed.

Today, Mr. Robinette is one of the U.S. leaders implementing holistic management. Moreover, through the Pacific Northwest Center for Holistic Management he continues to train future holistic management practitioners.

Mr. Robinette understands well that our scientific endeavors attempt to take the complex interactions of our natural and built environments and study them under a controlled setting. There is a flaw to this research approach when applied to holistic systems – we disregard natural interactions. Many complex interactions are taking place on various spatial and temporal scales, the likes of which we can never hope to fully define. So, the holistic ideology behind holistic management is, in general, not currently suited to testing under the narrow confines researchers’ design experiments.

Academia lacks the assessment tools to describe holistic systems. In that regard, Mr. Robinette and I both wish researchers would more consistently discuss and analyze the externalities of our agricultural system.

Conclusion

I share all of this in an attempt to speak to the importance of scientific inquiry. The training of future scientists must include integrative research and education. Our students must understand real or perceived communication barriers and address non-traditional metrics of ecosystem and economic wellbeing. We can foster a sustainable agriculture, but it comes first from a new breed of researchers: technically savvy, and well-spoken.

4 thoughts on "Science’s future: telling the story of your data"

  1. Alice J Barnett says:

    I’m thrilled to see young people pursuing passionate interests in this regard! One of my biggest concerns in this area is the “mega uses” of commercial fertilizers in all sorts of growing applications. We need something more water and earth sustainable friendly. Mega mono-culture products is also an issue. Thank you for your comments!

  2. Andrew McGuire says:

    Christopher, I enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of the closing speaker at an agronomy conference I attended in November, Randy Olson. He is also passionate about story-telling in science, see
    http://thebenshi.com/?page_id=2
    In his talk, he reduced it to ABT; And, But, Therefore. Using this simple story telling template in abstracts, blogs, even scientific papers. I believe he said he was working on a book expanding upon this idea. I like the simplicity of ABT – something I can remember easily!

  3. anonymous says:

    Interesting reflection! As a trained scientist that now works with farmers and industry, it’s interesting to also see anti-scientific approaches…Farmers want stories. Industry gives hazy, non-scientific methods to convince farmers to buy things. Just look at large corporate advertising…it’s all about the stories and the data is just a sidenote. Science is left to academics and there’s a huge bias against them, which is frustrating.

  4. Alison says:

    Thanks tackling this important discussion!! As someone who hopes to work at the intersection of science and story I really appreciate the well written commentary why this topic is something to pay attention to!

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