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Guest Post: University of Florida’s Jack Payne on Why Land-Grant Universities Must Lead on Climate Science

By Jack Payne, @JackPayneIFAS

As a skeptical public and gridlocked government consumes news of the Paris climate change summit, some will ask, “Whose science are we to believe?”

Public land-grant universities are among the best-positioned institutions to talk climate change on a layman’s level, to pursue science without partisanship, and even to meet the high expectations of Pope Francis, who during his recent U.S. visit spoke of his confidence in American universities’ ability to contribute to addressing climate change.

The 153-year-old land-grant system, which established a network of universities with proceeds from the sale of donated federal land, has a history of discovery guided by a mission to bring knowledge to the public.

Here’s why the land-grant universities must and do lead in addressing climate change.

Their agricultural identity makes them the go-to source for farmers, a group that must be part of climate change responses. This is an independent-minded bunch, and many of them are skeptics of climate science. To them, science too often wrongly portrays them as the problem, not the solution.

Folks in agriculture trust their land-grant experts, though. We’ve helped them save water, use less fuel, apply fewer fertilizers, and raise cattle more efficiently. Land-grants have a track record of demonstrating that environmental stewardship and profitability are not mutually exclusive goals.

Environmental groups, for all the good that they do, sometimes have ideologies that make them less-than-ideal messengers for farmers on climate science. The federal government is often regarded by farmers as a heavy-handed regulator and intrusive inspector. Whether those perceptions are justified or not, land-grant universities don’t carry that baggage. Farmers will hear us out.

We don’t preach or pursue a public policy agenda. We talk AND listen. We continually tell our customers that our relationship is a two-way street.

Land-grant universities have outreach teams in Extension offices across each state. They’re also listening posts. If farmers and residents don’t let us know what questions need to be answered, we exist in an academic echo chamber where the focus is on impressing our peers and getting published in prestigious journals. We do impress our peers, and we do publish prolifically, but we also go outside the academic community to make sure the knowledge we create helps average people.

We also do great science because we learn from those average people. Sometimes farmers have insights that our researchers would be unlikely to find in the lab.

For example, University of Florida scientists closely study rainfall. They’re good at crunching seasonal data to identify effects on soil, hydrology, and plant health. What we hadn’t fully appreciated until farmers told us, though, is that sometimes you need to focus on individual days instead of whole seasons. As a result we’re refining our rainfall research to account for months in which greater than half the monthly precipitation occurs in a single day.

Land-grants’ scientific expertise is wide-ranging. UF, for example, is one of only six universities in the country with colleges of law, medicine, agriculture and veterinary medicine on one central campus. We have 16 colleges in all, and more than 200 research institutes and centers.

That’s important because it makes us one of the best-equipped institutions for tackling the grand challenges such as how to feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050, even as climate change will make that even more challenging.

Academia and government funders often emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research. Problems are so complex now that the best hope for solutions comes from a team of experts all approaching a problem from multiple angles.

Land-grants are local everywhere. That makes land-grants particularly well-suited to a global problem like climate change that will require thousands of local responses.

Adaptation to climate change looks a lot different in Miami than it does in Washington. Differences in latitudes, attitudes, soils, and local economies are why there are few one-size-fits-all responses to climate change.

Sometimes locally-generated knowledge can be applied globally. Who else but a land-grant university is equipped to take what we learn in Polk County and get it to Washington or Paris?

The advantage of land-grant universities as the source of solutions is that we pursue science, not profit or political gain. That doesn’t mean we’re without self-interest, but we see our credibility as the key to our preservation.

That means sticking to science, the best tool we have developed for pursuing the truth as we understand it. There will always be some uncertainty, because research occurs at the interface of the known and the unknown.

Land-grants are more comfortable with uncertainty than those who have a stake in an outcome or interpretation. The prospect of what some would call failed experiments does not deter us, because we agree with Edison, who famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

A lot of people have made a lot of money off Gatorade in the past 50 years. But only the University of Florida, the land-grant university that invented it, has reinvested millions of Gatorade dollars back into innovation. We pay posterity instead of stockholders.

The feed-the-world challenge in the face of climate change is not just an agricultural problem, but a natural resources one. It is a human health issue, an engineering problem, and a social, political, economic one as well.

Land-grant universities assemble under one roof the interdisciplinary teams needed to address such a multifaceted challenge. They do it while guided by a public service mission. Through a century and a half of service, they’ve earned credibility that make them purveyors of science people can believe.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He is a former chair of the APLU’s BAA Policy Board of Directors.

  • Agriculture, Human Sciences & Natural Resources

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