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Communicating science for everyday use: 21st-century communication takes 19th-century research mission from beaker to tractor and beyond


By Jason Hackett

In a state where nearly half of the economy is driven by agriculture — and at a land-grant institution first named the Kansas State Agricultural College — people in purple maintain a strong link to the land.

Kansas State University was created to make the lives of all Kansans better through education, scientific research and purposeful sharing of knowledge, especially agricultural knowledge, through the extension system (see "Education for all," Page 18).

For decades, farmers and ranchers learned best practices and better ways to raise their crops and livestock through printed publications and in-person gatherings called field days. Both methods were spearheaded by scientific experts from the university and delivered by extension agents. They were — and are — efficient and successful means of sharing knowledge.

In the internet age, however, what used to be a small number of straightforward sharing methods has become myriad choices for researchers, extension specialists and agents. They now use Twitter, Facebook, blogs, institutional sites, unique web platforms and more.

Whatever their individual choices, person-to-person contact remains at the center of their communication. The difference is in the delivery.

"My most frequent audiences are producers and crop consultants, but we also reach the general public when interviews are broadcast on national television," said Romulo Lollato, wheat specialist and assistant professor of wheat and forages production at K-State. "Building direct connections with our stakeholders is very important, as they need to trust the information we are providing. Working one-on-one is sometimes necessary to build direct trust relationships."

Through his @KSUwheat account, Lollato shares information that matches the wheat production calendar along with novel research findings as soon as they become available.

The world of ag production is in transition mode, he said. Plenty of farmers and ranchers still rely on conventional extension venues, but "the newer generations need to be reached on social media, as they are using these venues daily and often do not reach out to an extension office," he said.

"In modern society, an extension specialist needs to hold an active social media account."

Even as the "how" evolves, the "why" remains constant: From an extension standpoint, sharing information to help people do their work is the msot obvious reason for communicating in several ways.

Twitter integration

Sitting at a conference in Illinois and tweeting photos from another conference in North Dakota to share critical information with Kansas farmers qualifies as just another day for Terry Griffin, assistant professor of cropping systems economics at K-State.

For Griffin, @SpacePlowboy, Twitter provides a seamless way to interact with farmers and research colleagues throughout each day.

You're judged by the company you keep, Griffin said, and on Twitter, his peers are experts in precision ag. When he contributes to conversation or simply shares high-quality information from others, the community sees the benefit of Griffin's expertise as well as those he respects, adding credibility and value to the entire community.

Griffin said farmers often ask him, "who do we listen to?" when trying to cut through all the noise and thousands of voices in social media. They can be online any time of day or night, and "if they're in a tractor and they have a good cell connection, they want to know instantly what commodity prices are or if there's a disease outbreak," he said.

Even before Griffin was on Twitter, he was active in what could now be called "old-fashioned" social media. "Some of my best programs came out of my having a light bulb go above my head because of me reading what farmers were talking about on discussion forums," he said. "And Twitter's the same way. Even if we don't tweet, we in extension need to know what people are talking about — and not the yahoos, but the acutal clientele we have."

The information battle

Food safety expert Karen Blakeslee, @KSREfoodie, views social media as a constant battle: the good information versus the bad information.

Amateur bloggers and celebrities are a toxic combination that is responsible for a lot of the bad.

Blakeslee, an extension associate who coordinates the Rapid Response Center to answer food safety questions and provides oversight for the Master Food Volunteer program, maintains a robust online presence with a website, e-newsletter and an active social media profile.

She confesses frustration that self-proclaimed experts attract large audiences with passionate — and thus resonant — presentations of falsehoods and pseudoscience. “People, if they trust something, almost implicitly believe it whether it’s true or not,” she said.

“I wish I had time to counteract some of these statements,” Blakeslee said. “I guess I’m not sure how far I should go … What would be the best way to respond to some of these things that are out there? In the food world, it’s just something so big … I can’t solve everything.”

Nevertheless, she persists, publishing science-based content online multiple times a week — even when it feels like she’s shouting into the wind. Blakeslee finds the most persuasive platform is still in-person interaction such as the food preservation classes she teaches throughout the year in various locations across Kansas.

“I’m quite blunt and basically say, ‘I’m trying to help you not kill yourself,’” she said. “Last year, for the first time in one of my classes, a lady came up to me toward the end and said, ‘It really is about science isn’t it?’”

Advocacy leads to persuasion, but it requires patience, Blakeslee said, “because you first have to get that basic fundamental understanding that, yes, there are people doing the science here, and you need to trust the scientists as opposed to ‘that’s what the bloggers and celebrities said.’”

Long-haul trust

Earning and building trust through technology is equally crucial for Lauri Baker, co-founder of K-State’s Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement. She presents new media marketing boot camps around the state to provide hands-on, high-tech training for owners of small and independent businesses.

She also researches effective ways of communicating science — especially complex and controversial topics — to people who do not have a background in ag science and who face a barrage of constant information — some trustworthy, some not as much.

Baker says if scientists want their work to be accepted by broad audiences, then emotional engagement is needed before facts and research are presented.

“Connecting with the real people involved in an issue, I think, has a way to make it past all the other gibberish,” she said. “And then, if you have that transparency underneath it and the foundation of facts and science, you can be proud of what you’re showing.”

Brian McCornack, K-State associate professor of entomology, and a whole team of researchers and technologists are proud of and passionate about what they’re building. Like so many others, he believes personal contact with stakeholders is bolstered by social media activity.

“The whole idea of being able to customize their experience through building relationships and choosing when and where to share data — if you look at extension in the same way — we can actually be a lot more effective in delivering our content.”

That’s why McCornack, @bmccornack, is part of a team working to build a multistate, multispecialty web platform called myfields.info. On it, extension specialists and farmers in multiple states voluntarily share data, allowing all users to benefit by finding out pest migration patterns, learning conditions of specific crops and getting real-time updates on key agronomic issues.

McCornack said his team is taking its time building the platform to ensure it helps its intended audience. “We’ve done several side sessions at crop schools asking what tools we need,” he said. “We want growers to know it’s theirs.”

For McCornack, it’s all about extending the first word in his area of expertise: integrated pest management.

When working with farmers, “you start looking at all the complexity of the questions that you’re really asking and how much of an expert you need to be to those areas,” he said. “Simply relying on static publications that are floating in multiple places on the web becomes a really inefficient way of delivering information to our stakeholders. And that’s not just me talking. We’ve surveyed enough growers and consultants in side sessions to know that 90 percent of the people that we surveyed would be using extension resources more if we made them more accessible.”