Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections from the USDA-NIFA listening session in Sacramento

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is accepting stakeholder input so it can prioritize science emphasis areas, identity program gaps and eliminate unneeded programs. NIFA is looking for ideas from all of their stakeholders and a few of us gathered in Sacramento to talk about Western needs. 

The following things resonated with me as I watched colleagues from a variety of disciplines and organizations speak.  

Colleagues emphasized the uniqueness of the Western United States. We heard them talk about our climates and the things that are problematic because of those climates like drought, fire and invasive species. They brought up unique needs of our residents who work on our farms and live in our cities.

Colleagues emphasized developing interdisciplinary programs. We talked about the need to fund programs that span food production to consumption. They encouraged NIFA to integrate existing programs and to fund work in policy.

Colleagues emphasized the need to protect our food supply. Pests were mentioned consistently as well as food safety, food waste, nutrition and protecting farm workers.   

Many of the things that were said align with the goals of the Western Integrated Pest Management Center but I feel like Westerners have more to say.

Now would be a good time to talk to NIFA about specialty crops and our experiences with the programs that NIFA has designed around those crops. Now would be a good time to talk about the interface between urban centers, natural areas and farms and the challenges and opportunities that these intersections bring. And, now would be a good time for commodity commissions to dust off the priorities in their pest management strategic plans and highlight unique needs. Westerners could weigh in on how NIFA programming impacts our daily lives while discussing the challenges we face in funding the work we want to do, especially as we lose more colleagues to retirement.

You can see what was said word-for-word in the Kansas, Georgia, and California sessions and submit a written comment at I think it is well worth your time because they are truly listening.

NIFA Listening Session: Comments from the Western IPM Center

The following are the comments delivered to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture listening session in Sacramento on November 2.

Amanda Crump, Western IPM Center Director
Thank you for this opportunity to provide a comment today.

I’m Amanda Crump and I am the director of the Western Integrated Pest Management Center. The Western Integrated Pest Management Center is a USDA-NIFA funded program that is responsible for coordinating regional integrated pest management efforts. We link NIFA with the Western states, Pacific Island territories and the tribal nations located in the West, and connect those IPM programs and researchers with each other.

Our goal is a healthier West with fewer pests.

My comment today is informed by my work in agriculture, by my research on education, and by the stakeholders who regularly communicate with the Western Integrated Pest Management Center. It’s also driven by the unique challenges we face in the West.

The West is a special place. But what makes it special also makes it a challenging place to manage pests. Nearly every day, the highest and lowest temperatures in the 48 contiguous states are found somewhere in the West. Our climates range from tropics to tundra. The West is home to 7 of the 10 most urban states, but also home to a large rural population. Most of the nation’s public lands are in the West, and Western crops are produced adjacent to these natural areas. And our cropping systems are incredibly diverse – with over 400 crops being grown throughout the region. And if our region wasn’t complicated enough, all of our struggles are exacerbated by the retirement of researchers and extension educators, in all of our fields of study.

With these challenges in mind, I think that supporting smart, safe and sustainable pest management should be a top priority for NIFA. Here’s why.    

Everyone has to manage pests, whether those pests are found in our homes, recreational areas or farms. Unfortunately, many of the ways pests are currently managed are not sustainable or safe. 

However, NIFA has supported research, extension and education on pest management through programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and the Crop Protection and Pest Management program. These programs fund pest detection and diagnostic efforts. They fund improvements in regulatory systems. And they fund the development of new pest management strategies. These small investments by NIFA have, so far, protected our multi-billion dollar American agricultural industry.

But given how complex our pest challenges are becoming – in light of the rapid establishment of new invasive species, the impact of shifting climate and weather events on endemic pests, and limited labor and expertise to develop new pest management tools to name just a few – we need to keep up and expand this work.

Supporting smart, safe and sustainable pest management is good for our environment, our health, our pocketbooks, and our food security.

As the Western Integrated Pest Management Center director, I see three big opportunities to advance food and agricultural sciences through investments in pest management. I have degrees in both social and biophysical sciences and manage a diverse team so I think that I have a unique perspective.

First, I see the value in creating a space for interdisciplinary teamwork. Look at integrated pest management – an integrated discipline where there is room for entomologists, plant pathologists, weed scientists, and vertebrate pest managers – but also home to ecologists, environmental scientists, and economists. But we need to start engaging other disciplines. For example, we struggle with labor availability in the West. The labor shortage could be addressed through technological or political solutions – but those solutions rely on engaging engineers, political scientists or others, in addition to traditional agricultural scientists.    

Second, I believe that we have a great opportunity right now to evaluate our previous work and use that evaluation to move agriculture forward. Ten years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development reviewed old projects it had funded – knowing that research often takes more time to mature than in any given grant cycle. USAID re-discovered a small grain storage technology developed at Purdue University that had been sitting on the shelf for nearly two decades. The agency dusted off and reintroduced the technology, and now it is used in tropical climates around the world to keep seeds pest free.

By evaluating our work in a rigorous way, we may find forgotten gems and hidden accomplishments that improve lives and inspire current and future researchers and extension educators.

Third, we have to invest in training a new generation of professionals. Not only do we need to train people to do our work, but we should also be training people in other disciplines to engage with us. The challenges we face are going to be addressed by young and creative people who are committed to environmental and economic justice. We need to mentor and engage them. We need to structure our communications efforts to develop partnerships with them.

In conclusion, I see many opportunities to advance pest management through long-term investments in interdisciplinary teams, evaluating past accomplishments, and developing creative capacity in the next generation of professionals. I think these three things would fit well with NIFA’s work, and advance its mission. Thank you.

Matt Baur, Western IPM Center Associate Director
Good morning and thank you Director Ramaswamy and Deputy Director Qureshi for providing an opportunity to provide input into the next USDA NIFA strategic plan.Funding projects in early stages of development with small grants - usually less than $50,000 - and funding the pest management practitioner network are critical to delivering pest management products that protect the agricultural enterprise. USDA-NIFA currently supports these efforts and we at the Western IPM Center believe that support for these efforts should continue.

In my written statement, I discussed the importance of funding projects and programs in the early stages of development. I suggested that funding at this stage helped to bring transformative research to practitioners that could use these tools. I also discussed the importance of networks of pest management researchers and extension agents and how these networks function to disseminate the research results and increase the likelihood of implementation. Here I will provide specific examples of how this funding has helped specific projects and what successes have been achieved. 

In 2015, Jeremiah Dung received a $30k grant to develop a diagnostic test for ergot spores affecting grass seed production in Oregon and start an alert system that would result in the optimal timing of fungicide applications for ergot control in grass seed production. The project resulted in an effective test and a grower alert system (newsletter) that helps time fungicide applications. The alert system continues with support from Oregon State University, USDA-ARS, and Oregon and Washington seed grower commissions.

Powdery mildew is a relatively new problem for hop production in the Pacific Northwest. Ann George of the US Hop Commission has worked on this issue since about 2013. Their group has identified several virulent strains of the pathogen and identified hop varieties that are especially sensitive. Recently, work by David Gent in Oregon demonstrated that early detection of infection on farms in an areawide effort can effectively limit the disease and the need for treatment. The network of extension agents and pest management practitioners will be essential going forward in the effort to achieve areawide producer cooperation in early detection of disease foci.

Soil solarization has benefited from technological advancements including anti-condensation plastic films, but nurseries do not have information on how long the films should be left on under differing climate conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Jennifer Parke is working on optimizing solarization for nurseries in the pacific northwest and is currently working on mathematical models -with the help of Len Coop at - on developing and validating models for growers to use.

In 2010, Marion Murray of Utah State University began surveying tree fruit growers in Utah with a project worth $7K. This work continues today and the survey provides important information for the Utah State University IPM Newsletter which is broadly hailed as one of the best IPM program newsletters in the West. The project has attracted additional funding including the specialty crop block grants program.
I hope these examples demonstrate how small grants provided through the USDA-NIFA, and funding of the network of researchers, extension agents and practitioners helps to deliver important tools to producers that transform how agriculture is practiced today.

Jim Farrar, Western IPM Center Co-Director (and UC IPM Program Director)
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to provide input as NIFA plans for the future. 

My name is Jim Farrar. I am Director of the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. This program is housed in UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, which was introduced this morning by Katie Panerella. The University of California Integrated Pest Management Program began in 1979 and currently consists of 11 IPM Advisors located throughout California and 20 staff in Davis working to translate university pest management science into useable, safe, and effective pest management tools. The Program also works collaboratively with Cooperative Extension Specialists and Advisors throughout California and with University Extension personnel throughout the Western states to stay abreast of current issues, avoid duplicative effort, and continue to improve pest management safety and effectiveness.

Integrated pest management is a science-based approach to managing pests while minimizing economic, human-health, and environmental risks from pests and pest-management practices. Pests pose economic, human-health and environmental risks and pest management practices pose economic, human-health and environmental risks. Minimizing these risks while managing pests is the goal of integrated pest management. Integrated pest management is system agnostic, which means it can be used in conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, the yard and garden, or indoors. Integrated pest management plays a central role in agricultural sustainability, prevention of food waste, food safety and security, urban landscapes, and residential safety. Examples include the interactions between soil, fertility, irrigation and pest management in production agriculture. Food waste due to rot organisms or making produce less appealing. Pests impact the aesthetics and safety of urban landscapes and in our homes and apartments will even attack us in our beds.

The Western states produce hundreds of specialty crops – the fruits, vegetables and nuts necessary for a healthy and varied diet. Examples include pecans in New Mexico, hazelnuts in Oregon, leafy greens in California and Arizona, table grapes and raisins in California, and hops in Washington and Oregon. Each specialty crop has its own pest and diseases complex and each needs a specifically designed integrated pest management program. The Western states also have important challenges with drought, fires, water resources, and increasing urban populations. 

More specifically, my state, California, is home to 39 million people, produces half of the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables, and has some of the nation’s most spectacular natural areas. Each is under constant threat from new invasive pests, like Asian citrus psyllid and huanglongbing in citrus, and resurgent endemic pests, like bed bugs and pine bark beetles. These are not small problems. Huanglongbing is currently an existential threat to Florida citrus and may become an existential threat to California citrus. Bed bug infestations drive people to try often ineffective and dangerous do-it-yourself remedies. 10s of millions of pine trees have been killed by drought and bark beetles in California natural areas, with implications for fires, watersheds, and ecosystems.

IPM programs need to continually adapt to challenges from these new and established pests, and to shifts in societal tolerance for pests and pest management practices as expressed through laws and regulations. The rapidly changing pest spectrum impacts food safety and supply, and can degrade our environment directly through destruction of ecosystems or indirectly through pest-management practices. Our ability to respond to invasive pests and resurgent endemic pests rests on a network of agricultural research and extension scientists, working with stakeholders and clientele. This network includes Cooperative Extension, Agricultural Experiment Stations, Land-Grant Universities, federal and state agencies, and federally-funded organizations, like National Clean Plant Network, National Plant Diagnostic Network, Regional Integrated Pest Management Centers, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, IR-4 and others. 

We need to strengthen these collaborative efforts between pest management experts in plant pathology, nematology, entomology, weed science, vertebrate pests, and expand to collaborations with technology experts in robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence, materials, supply chain logistics, and energy systems to solve today’s complex problems in IPM, agriculture, food systems, urban environments. Much like the biomedical revolution, it is the integration of multiple disciplines into single projects that can lead to transformative innovation to improves pest management, agricultural productivity, food safety, and ecosystem services while also giving rise to new businesses. Supporting and nurturing both the existing and new types of collaborations will be vital to continuing to meet the challenges of invasive and resurgent pests and to realizing the potential of new technologies in pest management and agriculture. Thank you for listening.

Steve Elliott, Western IPM Center Communication Coordinator
As the communication coordinator at the Western Integrated Pest Management Center, I was very pleased to see communication as one of the four pillars in NIFA’s 2014 to 2018 Strategic Plan. I believe that properly recognizes the important role communication can play in taking science from laboratories and experimental plots into the real world where it can improve people’s nutrition and food security, quality of life and economic opportunities.

What the old strategic plan didn’t do, however, and a new plan can – and I urge should do – is recognize that communication should not be an after-the-fact activity to tell people what NIFA and NIFA funding did. Also, the performance measures in that plan which focused strongly on YouTube and Twitter engagement, are very, very narrow. They’re measurable, but not necessarily meaningful.

Instead, I recommend NIFA focus on ways to integrate communication into its science mission so that communication is a part of the agency’s research, extension and education activities, not an afterthought. By incorporating communication into research, extension and education, communicators can help scientists create the advancements NIFA desires and envisions – not just promote them after the fact. 

There’s a substantial body of research that shows awareness of an issue – even agreement with it – does not in and of itself lead to behavior change, and NIFA has funded a great deal of excellent science that needs to be adopted to bring about real-world benefits. In areas like reduced tillage, nitrogen and nutrient management, integrated pest management, cover cropping and others, behavior change is necessary to realize the promise of the research. 

Communication, properly prioritized and executed, can help.

There are a number of specific steps NIFA can take to move in this direction, including:
  • Involving communicators within the agency during program and RFA development
  • Prioritizing integrated communication activities in RFAs and programs
  • Engaging behavioral psychologists, risk management experts, economists and other social scientists to help develop communication strategies that go beyond awareness and get to behavior
  • And funding research into how communication can help advance NIFA’s overall mission. 
A few quick examples. 

Multiple efforts focused on stopping the spread of invasive species have made it very easy for people to know what they are all about. “Don’t Move Firewood,” for instance, is the name of the organization, the website address and it’s key message. “Clean, Drain and Dry” is a checklist for boaters to keep aquatic pests from spreading, and “Play Clean Go” tells outdoor recreationalists exactly what they can do to keep from spreading invasive weeds and other pests with their bikes, boots or other gear. 

We’re looking at a similar idea at the Western Integrated Pest Management Center. The Western IPM Center, as you’ve heard, is a NIFA-funded regional program that promotes the development, adoption and evaluation of integrated pest management. One way we’re looking to do this as we develop our next four-year strategic and work plan, is to change the way we talk about IPM. 

Instead of talking about IPM as a thing, a specific set of practices or techniques people do, or don’t do, we’re looking to engage people around the concept of smart, safe and sustainable pest management. We’re exploring the idea of advancing this easy-to-grasp framework, a philosophy for managing pests, rather than specific tools or techniques – and rather than the name integrated pest management, which you usually have to explain anyway. 

We want to connect with people through the idea that successful pest management is smart, safe and sustainable pest management – and then engage them around what those concepts look like in whatever system they’re working in, from conventional and organic agriculture, to forests and rangelands, to schools and communities.       

At the National IPM Coordinating Committee meeting in Washington two weeks ago, Sonny Ramaswamy spoke about the need for more communication about food and agriculture, and in a workshop later that afternoon, that national committee endorsed the idea of creating a National IPM Communicator – to connect the dots in the stories the states and Regional IPM Centers are producing, and to tell national stories that raise the profile of integrated pest management – of smart, safe and sustainable pest management – and increase awareness and adoption.

It’s this idea of using communication to advance NIFA’s scientific mission and create positive outcomes that I’m recommending here today. It’s something NIFA can do that will help it accomplish all the other things that it wants to do. Thank you, and I’m happy to answer any questions. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Five Tips for Scientists and Science Writers to Connect with Audiences

by Steve Elliott
Western Integrated Pest Management Center

Words are good. Words work.

I was reminded of that at a recent conference for land-grant university communicators and the thought struck me because very few of the sessions actually focused on writing.

Instead, there were sessions on video and social media, web design and audience farming. The undercurrent throughout the program was that people don’t read and we have to use new ways to communicate with them.

There’s some truth in that but it’s a broad oversimplification. The fact is, people do read and a written report, story or bulletin can be the best way to communicate our information. If we’re failing to connect through those media, it’s not our audiences’ fault.

It may be our writing.

Too often, what comes out of our universities, our organizations and even our own keyboards is jargon-filled, exclusionary and inaccessible – even though we don’t mean it to be. We get busy, perhaps a little lazy, and write something like, “At the joint NIPMCC/FIPMCC meeting, the SIPMC director discussed how PMSPs could be used by EPA and OPMP, USDA NIFA, and/or by IR-4 to determine IPM-fit criteria.”

That’s an extreme (and thankfully made up) example, but it happens and it happens because there’s a percentage of people reading this who can make perfect sense of that sentence. The problem is that anyone who understands it is already in our choir, and everyone else feels we’re not talking to them.

And we want to talk to them. We want to introduce them to integrated pest management and have them join the conversation and our congregation. We want to connect, and we can. And it’s not even that hard.

Here are five simple steps every one of us can take.

1.     Lose the Acronyms
Heresy, I know! I mean, who wants to type out National Integrated Pest Management Coordinating Committee. Every. Single. Time.  But acronyms are confusing and exclusionary, they really are. Even IPM.

But everyone knows what IPM is, right? Really? Does your neighbor? Does your senator? Do they know we mean integrated pest management, or do they think we’re referring to intellectual property management, integrated process management, independence physician management or the International Partnership for Microbiocides? They all use IPM, too.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into the alphabet soup of acronyms. They’re like the secret clubhouse password we knew as kids that show we’re in the group. But unfortunately, they have the exact same effect of keeping other people out. We can’t connect if we’re excluding and confusing people, even unintentionally.

So try this:
·      Instead of acronyms, use words. Use names. On second references, use shortened versions of the names. The National Integrated Pest Management Coordinating Committee is just the coordinating committee or even just the committee after the first reference. 
·      If you must use an acronym, like IPM after you’ve spelled it out once, don’t use more than one per sentence.
·      Don’t create new acronyms, however well intentioned. Acronyms are like atmospheric carbon – there are enough out there already and adding more just hastens our demise.

It’s harder to write without acronyms, but readers will absolutely thank you. (Actually they won’t, but they will keeping reading your report and that’s what matters.) It’s worth the effort. Promise.

2.     Latin is Dead
I know Latin is the language of science, so if you’re writing for a peer-reviewed journal of course you’ll follow its conventions recognizing that it has a specialist audience.

But for any other publication, report or communication, at the very least ask yourself if Latin names are really necessary for your intended audience or if common names will do. If it’s important to include a Latin species name for accuracy or clarity or educational purposes, then absolutely use it. But if it’s not, leave it out. Generally, the public has less need of Latin than folks at universities believe.

One thing that’s never necessary? Latin abbreviations, e.g. e.g. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The Latin abbreviation e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means “for example.” But most people don’t know that, so a better way to say for example are the actual English words “for example.” Or “such as.” And instead of i.e., which stands for id est and means “in other words,” simply use “in other words” or just a comma and the definition you want to include.

3.     Sentences Aren’t Tables
In tabular data, use as many abbreviations and slashes and notations as you need, but in sentences use words. Pounds per square acre, not lb/ac2.

4.     Punctuate Simply, Capitalize Rarely
We write to help readers, and punctuation is designed to help readers, so let it work for you. And simple works. Commas and periods cover most situations. I write a lot and use a semicolon about once every six months. Other bits of punctuation that are handy are the en dash – a great way to set off a simple explanation – and the occasional parenthesis (which is similar but diminishes what’s inside it.)

Beyond that, punctuation gets in your way. Slashes should only be in web addresses and it’s never necessary to write and/or any other this/that construction.

As far as capital letters, only use them for the names of people and the official names of official things. Concepts don’t get capitalized.

5.     Write Like You Speak
Why do people like videos? Because in video, we use spoken language and it’s easier to understand.

So write like that. If a project report asks for a non-technical summary, describe your project on paper the exact same way you’d describe it to a neighbor. Write it like you’d say it if someone was making a video about your research. Write a pest bulletin the way you’d explain it to a grower in person.

All these tips are just specific ways to make our writing more conversational and accessible, and accessible is everything. We work hard to promote integrated pest management. We want people to engage with our programs. We want growers and pest managers to use our bulletins. We want regulators to understand our issues, and legislators to value our contributions. And we get there if we’re communicating clearly.

So use your words. Words are good.

Words work.