Winter 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

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Uncertainty: Condition Normal for the Future


Roy S. Rauschkolb
Director, Arizona Cooperative Extension and Chair of ECOP
University of Arizona-Tucson

How many times have you heard that times are changing and Cooperative Extension is at a crossroads? Those declarations have been commonplace almost since the beginning of Cooperative Extension. In 1965, C. M. Ferguson, ES-USDA administrator in the late 1950s, made the following observations in a speech given at a seminar on Teaching Improvement at North Carolina State University:

Change has always been with us. There is nothing new about its occurrence, but what is new is its rapidity. Its rate is almost incomprehensible - what is new today is old tomorrow. It is of our own making. It has reached hurricane proportions and we are faced with decisions as to how we plan our course in the days ahead.

He went on to point out: ...the alternative most in keeping with our heritage would be through research and education to help people anticipate change and adjust to it; to channel the forces of change into an orderly, constructive pattern designed to provide a more abundant satisfying environment as we move from the accomplishments of today to the challenge of tomorrow.

Doesn't that sound familiar? What makes this point in time any different from the past? Perhaps, it's best stated by the famous baseball philosopher Yogi Berra who said, "The future ain't what it used to be."

Issues programming relative to high priority issues on the national agenda; new interactions, organizational structure, and new directions articulated in the ECOP Futures Task Force Report and the recent ECOP retreat; declining federal support through cuts in funding and inflation; and increased demand from clientele for more sophisticated programming are all combining to create uncertainty in the minds of our faculty and our clientele about the future of Cooperative Extension.

With uncertainty comes stress as we try to make adjustments in how we function to accommodate the changes. As with most stress, we can let it become debilitating or we can use it instead to sharpen our focus and actions to create opportunities for making the changes essential to continue to be a relevant program for our various audiences.

The Cooperative Extension System must provide the quality of leadership expected of it to address these challenges in a responsive and positive way. It won't be business as usual. For the Cooperative Extension System, it can't be business as usual if we're to be successful in adapting to the increasingly rapid changes occurring in our social, economic, environmental, and natural resource structure.

Concomitantly, we must use changes in our scientific knowledge base and advances in the electronic technology to implement programs and communicate with various audiences. In this context, the question invariably arises: How can we as individuals or an organization deal with changes that are so rapid and of such magnitude, all of which contribute to the uncertainties we find ourselves facing?

I contend the solution is simple, even obvious: it's the execution of the solution where the task becomes more complicated. If those of us in Cooperative Extension are going to provide the sophisticated programming needed to develop solutions expected by our clientele to help them deal with the complex issues or uncertainties the future brings, it will be essential for us to have the best scientifically trained personnel possible, people dedicated to working with people to help them adapt to change.

Every person in Cooperative Extension will be required to have the expertise that can be gained from a strong disciplinary education. Everyone will need the sophistication that comes from disciplinary training designed to provide in-depth knowledge of the scientific principle of a discipline and the knowledge of experimental technique. This will enable the person to design, implement, and interpret experimental data, whether it's our own or a colleague's. This type of expertise will be essential to apply the principles of our disciplines to the problems we find facing our clientele. And, it's using this expertise to do problem-solving research on issues of importance to clientele that provides the basis for the educational programming we conduct.

It was clearly pointed out in the testimony at the hearings before the ECOP Futures Task Force that some Cooperative Extension personnel are perceived by some of our clientele as not having knowledge relevant to their needs. The implication is that we're either unable or unwilling to adapt a scientific knowledge base to the problems they face. That ability is necessary for Extension personnel to distinguish between cause-and-effect relationships and random effects in complex systems.

In many cases, small differences in approach or treatment may make the difference between a business' profit or loss, improving one's diet or health, designing a curriculum that will have a positive impact on the lives of young people, or giving people the skill to influence and make decisions. If we're not able to apply the principles of our various scientific disciplines to solve the problems of our clientele, then we miss the opportunity to assist the people needing the help our knowledge can bring. In addition, we lose credibility with our audiences and are no longer seen by them to be either relevant or of help.

It has been my experience that the scientific principles of our different disciplines are just as applicable now as they were in the past and will be just as applicable in the future as they are now. The scientific principles that form the basis of one's discipline rarely change with time except as they're more clearly elucidated with additional research or the limits of their applicability are better understood. It's incumbent for us as individuals and as an organization to acquire and maintain our disciplinary base for us to continue to be relevant as new issues emerge. There's a corollary benefit. The ability to see opportunities and willingness to take risks comes from confidence in one's skill to apply one's disciplinary knowledge.

If we in Cooperative Extension are expected to enhance our capabilities to do problem-solving research to be more effective in dealing with complex issues and systems, then we'll need even greater support from federal, state, and county governments as well as the private sector. The need for technical help in conducting problem-solving research or creative programming will be great. Our skilled agents and specialists can conceive of many more studies and programs than they can physically accommodate. It's neither appropriate nor efficient for them to perform tasks that a person with less scientific training can do.

Scientific knowledge alone isn't an adequate foundation for an Extension person; we also must have the communication and interpersonal skills to work with our audiences to teach them the new knowledge they need to improve their lives. For Cooperative Extension to be relevant and effective, the bottom line for us is to be able to transfer the knowledge of our science base by molding its principles into application for the benefit of our clientele.