Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Addressing Mega-Issues of the '90s

...Extension Service needs to achieve a delicate balance between old concerns and new demands in serving its broadened base. By pulling together all perspectives of an issue and providing objective research and reporting...can help Extension move important policy debates forward, while fulfilling its role as a public educator.

Carole Nuckton
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Oregon State University-Corvallis

Harold O. Carter
Department of Agricultural Economics and Director
University of California Agricultural Issues Center, University of California-Davis

David A. Cleaves
Extension Forest Economist
Southern Forestry Experiment Station, New Orleans, Louisiana

A primary role of the land grant university and Extension Service has been to create, adapt, and extend new technology to solve problems. The clientele for its teaching, research, and extension was once mostly farmers, ranchers, and other rural citizens. Today, the audience includes all of society. Similarly, issues facing the land grant institutions are no longer strictly agricultural, for even the smallest of controversies has implications reaching far beyond the farm gate. Many issues are larger and more complex than ever before. They're mega-issues because they involve so many different but interrelated factors. Mega-issues call for a new, broad, interdisciplinary approach.

This article describes the model for such an approach developed over the past several years at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.

Defining Mega-Issues

The controversary surrounding growth and change in California's Central Valley offers a textbook case of a mega- issue. California's Central Valley is taking more than its share of the state's burgeoning population growth and economic boom with resulting adverse impacts on the resource base and the valley's agricultural system. The impacts of growth are being experienced by the valley's farm and nonfarm residents in the form of air pollution, loss of open space, and conflicts over land and water use.

The situation in the Central Valley shows two basic components of a mega-issue. First, many diverse interest groups are in conflict. In this case, the conflict is over the use of the valley's resources. The groups involved include long-time valley residents and newcomers. Among the newcomers are commuters from the Bay Area in search of affordable housing and Southeast Asian immigrants in search of a new life for themselves and their families. Traditional valley groups include farm operators and workers who together provide two-thirds of the state's farm output. Developers seek to accommodate the demand for nonfarm uses of the land, while conservationists call for caution and a slowdown in developing these other uses. Some groups work to preserve wild and scenic rivers-and others want to harness them for various uses. Some residents would even like to turn back the clock to when the Central Valley was two-thirds wetlands. Advocates and spokespeople representing a multitude of positions stir the pot.

The second characteristic of a mega-issue is that existing institutions seem unable to address the problem. For example, air pollution, land use, or water contamination problems caused by boom times in the Central Valley don't observe county boundaries; yet, few appropriate government bodies regulate across regions. Cities and counties compete for limited financial resources as the pie they're fighting over shrinks. Counties and districts consider declaring bankruptcy, while demand for their services grows. Some argue that inertia in the California state legislature has led to government by initiative.

Addressing Mega-Issues

In approaching mega-issues, the University of California Agricultural Issues Center uses what can be termed an hourglass model (see Figure 1). Into the top of the hourglass is poured available expertise at the university and elsewhere about an issue and all the diverse values surrounding it. This flows toward a culminating event, at the neck of the hourglass, which brings all the input to focus on the issue and tries to raise the level of the debate. Then, outreach/Extension effort stimulated by the event flows out through the bottom of the hourglass to a broader audience and further work.

The center developed the hourglass model in 1986-87 with its first large study/Extension project on worldwide competition and constraints on marketing California specialty crops. The successful format was applied again in 1987-88 to the issue of chemicals in the human food chain. In 1988-90, the center focused on growth and change in California's Central Valley. The center is now using the hourglass model to study and bring together diverse interests in water use in California.

Figure 1. The hourglass model.

Studying Facts and Values

Dealing with today's mega-issues requires knowledge and expertise drawn from many specialized subjects, such as plant science, soil science, medicine, animal science, social science, philosophy, law, political science, meteorology, geography, agronomy, economics. A mega-issue calls for interdisciplinary effort, applying what's known to the problem at hand. Even more important than gathering all the "facts" about an issue is understanding the values and feelings surrounding it. Understanding values is essential to knowing how the various players are interpreting facts.

The top of the hourglass model represents the center's attempts to serve as a catalyst, bringing university resource people from many disciplines and representatives of diverse interest groups into a forum where they can meet and react. The goal is to get the parties to discuss the way they see an issue from their differing perspectives.

Operationally, the UC Agricultural Issues Center separates a mega-issue into meaningful subtopics. For example, the six study group topics for the Central Valley project were: people pressures (urbanization, population growth, and demographic change); the natural resource base including study groups in land, water, air, and biological resources; and institutions.

Study group leaders are selected from several UC campuses, so the core of the study is made up of university faculty from a range of disciplines. These leaders must be able to attract others with expertise on their topics and work with them during the study period. Each group leader is provided with a modest budget. With limited funding, the center is able to leverage extensive research through in-kind faculty contributions. Participants from the single-purpose, nonprofit research organizations, such as the American Farmland Trust or Ducks Unlimited, are useful additions to the study groups. Others from state agencies also join the study groups. The center works closely with university county farm advisers, both for their input to the study and their facility for disseminating study results to their clientele. Focus group sessions are held separately with various interest groups to understand the differing valuations of the issue.

During the study period, the center coordinates the activities of study groups. The study group leaders are brought together periodically so each knows what the others are doing and can consider the interactions between subject areas. Center staff provide an ongoing liaison among the groups.

The center sets a definite cutoff point of usually one to two years for each study. A "solution" isn't expected by this cutoff date, but the center does hope to be able to place all aspects of the issue into a public arena for observation and understanding.

The Public Event

At the neck of the hourglass model is a large public symposium where the findings of the study groups are presented and discussed. Participants of various interest groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Farm Bureau, serve as symposium panelists and react to the study group presentations. They're urged to discuss the way they see an issue from their differing perspectives.

Outreach Efforts

At the bottom of the hourglass model is the outreach/Extension effort to a broader audience. Appropriate output is prepared that reflects not just the study group findings, but also the input of the diverse interest groups. Findings are disseminating using several media, including a readable proceedings of the symposia, short and longer study group reports, and carefully scripted videotapes. Materials are directed to a general audience-an educated, interested public involved in the decision process. The press is briefed before, during, and after the symposia, as are legislative aides-a direct link to our policy makers.


The rich diversity of scholars and disciplines represented in our land grant universities has the potential to provide an unparalleled reservoir of expertise to tackle the broadest and most complex of societal problems. The challenge is to use this strength to deal with an expanded set of public issues and, at the same time, continue to serve traditional agricultural interests in a broad new context. The land grant university with its Extension Service needs to achieve a delicate balance between old concerns and new demands in serving its broadened base.

The hourglass approach isn't intended to solve mega-issues. The model succeeds, however, in bringing together university expertise to increase public knowledge regarding complex, multidimensional policy issues. By pulling together all perspectives of an issue and providing objective research and reporting, use of the hourglass model can help Extension move important policy debates forward, while fulfilling its role as a public educator.


1. This article highlights material from Harold O. Carter and Carole Nuckton, "California's Great Central Valley-A Laboratory for Public Policy" (Paper presented at the Western Agricultural Economics Association meeting in Portland, Oregon, July 1991).