Where do research projects come from?
This edition of Reid’s Ram-blings was composed by Jake Thorne, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Program Specialist.
I love what I do for a career. My job provides a living for my family, it feeds a personal passion, and it allows me to be surrounded by the best type of people in the world. But I am betting exactly what we do in research/extension is probably a little hazy to most, even sheep and goat industry folks who we work with regularly. I’ll admit, it‘s not always clear cut.
For me and my family, the holiday season usually involves airplane travel to visit relatives. I don’t know why it catches me off guard, but inevitably my seat-neighbor on a flight will ask the question that everyone goes to when you are forced to rub shoulders with a complete stranger while trapped in a metal tube hurdling across the atmosphere at if-we-crash-this-is-certain-death speed…
“So… what do you do?”
I swear I never answer this question the same way twice. Consider it a lifelong ambition to find the perfect one sentence response that explains my job clearly and floods the likely non-ag employed questionee with complete understanding. It’s a work in progress. My current go-to is, “I study/analyze/read about/talk about/ write about/stare at sheep and goats, and then do my best to help the folks who are kind of into that too.” Like I said, I think it needs some tweaking…
But in reality, what we do is a little complicated and so now that my attempt at witty writing has sucked you into this article this far- here goes.
Our research projects at the center are born from ideas of how to benefit the sheep and goat industries. But there is a caveat- research costs money, money that we usually need to seek out in the form of a grant. Grants can be offered from many entities- private or government, but they usually are tied to advancing a cause or purpose.
In small ruminants, we are fortunate to have a couple of granting bodies that are dedicated to helping our specific industries improve, and for this we are very grateful! However, some of our larger research programs also require us to seek funding from sources such as the USDA, because of the larger dollar amounts they can offer.
To receive these grants, we need to write applications that align with the initiatives of the USDA and clearly explain how the proposed project will be beneficial to a broad section of the industry, is novel science (and is a foundation for future projects), and show there is a clear plan is in place of how to execute it. Sometimes these projects address an immediate concern for the sheep and goat industries and sometimes they satisfy a more long-term vision of what is to come.
A review panel then compares our grant application against a pool of others and decides which ones to fund. For perspective, getting funded one-third of the time in some fields is a success. Think baseball here – a career batting average of .333 means you’re a sure-fire hall of famer. But that also means in many cases we don’t receive funding and the project needs to be redesigned or else it pretty much ends before it ever gets started. Once the funding is secured though, the work can begin.
Why is research expensive, and how much are we talking? Research academics are evaluated by their employers (universities) in many ways, but a major criteria is the number and impact of articles they publish in peer-reviewed journals. Consider this a universal grading system across all fields of science. To publish an impactful article, the science often needs to not just be a repeat of what someone else has done previously and it needs to be done on a scale to definitively answer a question. All the resources, including equipment, animals, lab supplies, testing materials, worker salaries, and overhead, to accomplish this can add up pretty fast.
For a project to be large enough to find significant results, it is not uncommon for these costs to be in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. While this seems like a lot, science can be a bit of “you get what you pay for.” Good information comes with a price tag. From these projects, researchers will compile the results into an article and submit it for peer review (which can be stringent, and for good reason). Multiple published articles a year, per researcher, is typically the university’s expectation. There is a saying in academia “publish or perish,” and it can be pretty accurate.
For those in extension specialist roles, the job is a little different. Whereas research conducts science and compiles information from a project, it is the role of extension to disseminate these results to industry stakeholders. As a specialist it is necessary to understand how the industry works and it’s needs for progress, but at the same time, have knowledge of the capabilities of science and what can be accomplished. When something is learned in the lab, how it can be applied on the farm is not always a given, thus extension plays a very important role in the translation of that information. Often this includes conducting “applied research” which are projects that test a tool or strategy developed through “traditional research” to solve an immediate industry concern.
Conducting collaborative projects that involve producers and successfully applies new science/information can also be very successful and gratifying. At the same time, working directly with producers in a hands-on way allows us to better understand their challenges and how not-yet-developed technology could possibly benefit their operation. How do these applied and collaborative projects get paid for? You guessed it- grants. How do we show if these projects were successful? In many cases, publications.
I can’t say for sure what compelled me to write on this topic, but I wanted to give a bit of perspective on how the wheels turn in research and extension. There are also A LOT of perks to the job- namely that we get to work with livestock and for those that raise them for a living. We get to travel, we get to network, and every day is different – though livestock workdays are the best!
With this said, my next flight leaves in a couple days… any suggestions on how to condense this into one sentence?
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at email@example.com or 325-657-7220. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.