You are here

Science in the Midst of Conflict

Science in the Midst of Conflict
Ag Sciences faculty help communities in conflict find common ground

The day-to-day work of OSU’s agricultural scientists sometimes puts them in the middle of contentious issues. That’s when researchers and Extension faculty take on the role of facilitator, convening community groups in conflict to help find breakthrough solutions to difficult problems. Here are a few examples:

Dustin Johnson

On a bright fall day in Burns, Dustin Johnson got a call from a Harney County rancher battling an invasion of medusahead. “This rancher is a good land manager,” says Johnson, a range scientist at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC), “but part of his ranch had been infested for a long time and was on the brink of being lost.”

Medusahead is a weedy annual grass that’s crowding out native perennial grasses and shrubs on sage-steppe lands across the West. It’s one of several culprits blamed for plummeting populations of greater sage-grouse, a poster child for North America’s arguably most extensive and least protected ecosystem. Ranchers hate medusahead because it can erode their land’s grazing capacity by as much as 80 percent. Conservationists hate it because it persistently reduces and fragments sage-grouse habitat. But it took the scientists at EOARC to help ranchers and conservationists see eye to eye.

Johnson and his colleagues Chad Boyd and Jay Kerby worked with ranchers throughout eastern Oregon to develop management plans to reduce threats to sage-grouse and improve rangeland health. Such Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA), created through an eight-county partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and county soil and water conservation districts, have been nationally recognized as a model of community engagement.

“Our task,” Johnson says, “was to bring the relevant science into conservation strategies under a CCAA.” Johnson and fellow Extension faculty member Vanessa Schroeder serve as technical advisors to CCAA landowners in Harney County, helping them tailor their conservation strategies to particular habitat problems. One rancher might alter the times and places her cows graze. Another might clear juniper from higher-elevation sagebrush habitat. A third might use a combination of herbicides and reseeding of native species to knock back cheatgrass and reduce fire risk.

Johnson and Schroeder visit their clients several times a year to see how things are going and listen to any concerns. “By partnering with the ranchers who hold these CCAAs,” Johnson says, “we’re applying the best available science to improve sage-grouse habitat on private lands over the long term.”

Maud Powell

Small farms agent Maud Powell (center) convened and facilitated a difficult community conversation about GMOs among area growers. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

On a spring evening in Central Point, Maud Powell stood facing a roomful of Jackson County citizens eager to express their views on one divisive question: should the county ban genetically engineered crops? Powell, an Extension Small Farms agent at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (SOREC), is a farmer herself, and she knew feelings in the community were running high.

Many farmers supported the ban, including some in Jackson County’s small but vigorous organic-agriculture community. They feared that genetically modified pollen and seed would contaminate their vegetable and seed crops and render them unsaleable. Others worried that a ban would deprive them of a legal crop—namely, alfalfa or corn grown from GM seed—that provided a good livelihood and gave their customers safe and affordable feed and food products.

With the question coming up on the May 2014 ballot, Powell had convened the meeting as an informational event. She knew it might be tough to have a cool discussion of the science around GMO crops. But that, she thought, was exactly what was needed.

“As a university faculty member, I couldn’t take a position on the ballot measure,” she says. “But as an Extension agent, I knew I needed to get involved, because this was an issue that impacted the whole community—farmers and consumers and everyone.”

Powell welcomed the attendees and thanked them for coming. Then she introduced Carol Mallory-Smith, a renowned OSU weed scientist, to speak about the science behind biotechnology in agriculture. Mallory-Smith explained the basic biology of plant breeding. She talked about ways in which GMOs are similar to and different from conventionally hybridized plants. She discussed research findings on the safety of genetically modified crops and on how their cultivation might affect conventional farming.

The Q&A session, which Powell moderated, reached a high emotional pitch, with some grandstanding, a little shouting, and a couple of slurs on Mallory-Smith’s scientific credibility. “But Carol was amazing,” Powell says. “She was very skilled at deflecting the anger directed at her, and she answered questions in a very calm way.”

As citizens wrestle with issues that have no easy answers, Extension agents often find themselves in the midst of conflict. That is a place where Extension does some of its most important work, says Powell. “We have this unique role, in that we’re able to provide research-based information. And we’re in a position to bring together factions that would otherwise silo themselves. We bring them into a neutral space, and we facilitate a civil community conversation.”

The GMO ban was approved by Jackson County voters and remains in place after surviving a court challenge. There’s no way to know whether Mallory-Smith’s presentation changed any minds. But that’s not the point, Powell says. “Even if it’s a controversial subject—especially if it’s controversial—Extension’s role is to provide scientific, politically unbiased information, and then respect people enough to let them draw their own conclusions. If we want Extension to stay relevant, we can’t back away from that challenge.”

Kim Anderson

Following Hurricane Harvey, OSU environmental chemist Kim Anderson sent a team to Houston to distribute passive sampling wristbands to residents worried about their exposure to toxins in flood waters. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

As weary Houstonians mopped up after the freakishly powerful Hurricane Harvey, they faced a dismaying possibility: contamination from toxic chemicals lurking in the receding floodwaters. The Houston area is home to 13 Superfund sites, and also to oil refineries and other industries whose effluents contaminate water and air.

“Community members were asking for some way to measure their chemical exposure after the flooding,” says Kim Anderson. “We were all geared up and ready to go, so we offered to come down.”

Three weeks after the killer storm pummeled the city, Anderson, an environmental chemist at OSU, sent her scientific team members Peter Hoffman, Lane Tidwell, and Holly Dixon to Houston. Speaking at a community meeting, they invited flood-stricken residents to join them in a citizen-science project that involved wearing a simple wristband—a passive sampler that picks up molecules of organic chemicals in much the way your own cells do.

The colorful wristbands, invented by Anderson 8 years ago, are made of soft silicone. They can absorb thousands of organic chemicals: pesticides, hydrocarbon pollutants from wood or fossil-fuel combustion, benzene and toluene used in industrial solvents, and many others. The Houston participants were instructed to wear their wristbands for a week and then mail them to Anderson’s laboratory. There the samplers are being analyzed for more than 1,500 organic chemicals. Each participant will receive an individual report on his or her exposure. Anderson’s team will also write a general report for Houston authorities.

The post-Harvey wristband project is an example of engaging “citizen scientists” to gather and help interpret scientific data about events that affect their lives—such as natural disasters. Environmental monitoring is a good place for citizen scientists to start, Anderson says. “With innovative technologies like these passive sampling wristbands, people can contribute greatly to accurate assessments of local conditions.”

There’s a bigger payoff, too. Citizen science is engaged citizenship—it helps build a resilient community that’s better able to survive a natural disaster. “Citizen science groups have the ability to self-organize and develop important community partnerships,” Anderson says. In this way, citizen scientists engage their neighbors, helping them band together to cope not just with natural disasters but also with the smaller shocks and risks that every community faces.


See the KGW8 News video about the Houston wristband project.

Published in: Ecosystems, Innovations, People