Not all Extension publications are created equal

(A friendly caveat – this post does not lend itself well to images. So the pictures here are simply eye candy from my 2019 trip to London to reward you for considering this visually drab but important topic.)

The actual “whomping willow” in Kew Gardens

I’ve been involved in Extension education for 17 years and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that Extension audiences want information that’s easily understood and has obvious practical use. Most peer-reviewed research articles are written for academic audiences, so only the most persistent nonscientists will slog their way through pages of dense, technical writing.  It’s up to Extension educators to accurately translate and summarize technical scientific information for use by the public.

Epiphyte “tree” in Kew Gardens glasshouse

Extension is part of the American land-grant university system and extends traditional academic teaching to citizens statewide (hence the term “extension”). In addition to providing seminars and workshops to interest groups, Extension publishes educational materials in-house and provides them at low or no cost to their clientele.

The Bonsai Walk at RHS Wisley Gardens

But here’s the problem: the standards for Extension publications are set by each university. Unlike the peer-review system adopted by reputable journal publishers, Extension publications can vary widely in quality. Some universities have adopted a system that parallels that of scientific journals in that they require double-blind peer review. But many universities have not – and this means that looking for Extension publications on a particular topic results in a collection of materials with contradictory messages. This is incredibly frustrating to confused nonscientists and to Extension faculty who have to sift through the mess to find publications that are relevant and science-based. As a result, Extension publications are often regarded with suspicion by both nonscientists and academic faculty (who often do not have the disciplinary expertise to sort through the mess). Since I was a traditional academic before entering Extension, I have a foot in both camps.

Sunken gardens at Kensington

Nonscientists are probably not going to have the disciplinary expertise to tease out the good stuff from the dreck. But they can look for some indicators that will help them identify the most reliable publications. Here’s a checklist to start the process: the more “yes” answers you have, the better the chances are that the information is reliable.

  1. Is the author identified? Anonymous publications are not reliable.
  2. Is the author an expert? Expertise is determined by advanced degrees (at least a Master’s degree) in the subject matter.
  3. Is the publication peer reviewed? There should be a logo or a statement on the publication that says so.
  4. Is the publication relevant? High-quality Extension publications targeted towards commercial agricultural production are usually inappropriate for use in home gardens and landscapes.
  5. Is the publication current? Information relative to urban horticulture and arboriculture is rapidly changing. Publications over 10 years old likely do not contain the newest information.
  6. Are there scientific references included, either as citations or as additional readings?

As necessary as this process is for identifying reliable information, there can also be negative outcomes. Universities that do not have a rigorous process for publishing Extension materials put their Extension faculty into the uncomfortable position of having to defend their work when it’s questioned. It would benefit all parties for every land-grant university to institute a rigorous, peer-reviewed process for their Extension publications.

My favorite ad at the tube station


About 6 months ago I wrote a little article about what I perceived to be the most significant problem within extension, which is that extension personnel, and specifically tenured and tenure track faculty, simply don’t receive recognition or credit for accomplishing their job. In this essay I’m going to give a specific example of this problem.
Normally, when someone does what they are assigned to do, they are rewarded, or at least an acknowledgement is made that they are performing satisfactorily. For example, when a salesperson is given a job whose description says specifically that they are to sell vegetables, then, if this salesperson sells a lot of vegetables, his or her supervisor rates him or her accordingly. Sure, the salesperson’s supervisor could suggest that he or she help sell meat too, but if the supervisor doesn’t formally change the job description, then we would think it was pretty unreasonable to downgrade the vegetable salesperson too far for not selling much meat.
The job assigned to faculty with extension appointments is to transfer research based information to the people who they are assigned to serve. Let’s take someone who all of you are familiar with as an example. Linda Chalker-Scott is assigned to deliver relevant research-based horticultural information to the public. Linda is a great example because she has done her job so effectively, using a multitude of techniques to spread information to an incredibly broad audience. She has published multiple books, one of which won the gold and silver award of achievement from the Garden Writer’s Association. She has published in newspapers and magazines such as Fine Gardening where she is currently a contributing editor, she is the most prolific writer on both the Garden Professor’s blog and Facebook page, she has appeared on Growing a Greener World, and soon you’ll be able to hear her 24 lecture course for the well known Great Courses series (I am so jealous of this!). The list goes on and on. By all accounts Linda has worked hard to become a nationally and internationally known source of research based information for the consumer. Right now she is probably the top urban and consumer extension horticulture faculty in the United States in terms of population reached and quality of information delivered. If you rate her anywhere out of the top three then please post a comment here to let me know who is doing a better job.
So, why hasn’t Linda Chalker-Scott’s extension work been reviewed, recognized, appreciated and rewarded for the good publicity that she has brought to her University and the valuable service that she provides for the people of Washington (and beyond)? I’m not at liberty to disclose all that I know but, in my opinion, her extension work has been downplayed over the last three years to the point that it actually seems to me to have done her career more harm than good. This all goes back to my belief that extension work is neither understood nor appreciated by higher education. I have two possible cures for this problem:
1. Start appreciating the work that extension faculty do. No, it doesn’t bring in big research dollars, and no, it doesn’t yield articles in journals like Science and Nature (Though some extension professors, like Linda, do such an incredible job scouring the literature on particular topics that they actually publish review papers on those topics. For example, Linda has published reviews on anthocyanins, mulches and biodiversity). What it does do is deliver useful research based information to the masses. It stops people from overusing phosphorus in their lawns, it teaches people to identify diseased plants, it encourages people to use appropriate techniques to combat weeds and pests, it informs the public about how dangerous GMOs really are. The list goes on and on.
2. Just give it up. If universities don’t want to reward, or even appreciate the work that extension faculty do in terms of public education then hey, let’s not have extension faculty. Instead we could hire non-faculty personnel without significant research knowledge to spread research information. No, they won’t have the same respectability without the Ph.D. or title (such as assistant professor, associate professor or full professor), and there’s a good chance that they’ll get things wrong because of their lack of research experience (which is why most Land Grant Universities currently have a hierarchy built into their extension systems with University based faculty on top distributing information to extension agents) but they won’t have the same expectations either – And the administration won’t have the admittedly sticky situation of needing to figure out what a faculty member’s extension work is worth as compared to another faculty member’s research and/or teaching.
Maybe there’s a third option? I don’t know. All I can say is that it is time to have the conversation about what successful extension work is worth at the highest academic levels.

Some Thoughts on Extension

For those of you who are out of the academic loop, Extension is that part of academia tasked with delivering research based information to those who can use it. You’ll hear other definitions, but I think that this basic one is the most useful for the following discussion. Extension, as a general rule, is tightly tied to agricultural sciences though it may include everything from child care to math or even computer science.

For fifteen years I was a part of Extension at the University level. During that time (1998-2013) my formal Extension title was Nursery Management Specialist and my job was to deliver information to the nursery industry. I was OK at this job, but discovered that my real passion was delivering horticultural information to the public. In 2008 my job was formally changed. I retained the title Nursery Management Specialist, but my duties expanded to include delivering information to the public. Besides my extension title, I also had an academic rank which was, from 1998-2004, Assistant Professor, and which became Associate Professor after I achieved tenure in 2004. For personnel in the applied sciences it is typical to have a percentage associated with their Extension appointment which indicates (roughly) how much of their effort should be put into extension. My Extension appointment was 60% throughout my University career.

I’m giving the above information so that anyone reading this will have a sense of what my experience with Extension is and the perspective from which I speak. I welcome disagreement, I know that my views aren’t the only ones out there. That said, here are the points that I want to make:

1. I believe that Extension is important.
2. I believe that Extension is dying.
3. I believe that Extension cannot be saved unless personnel in administrative roles make some fundamental changes to the way things are currently done.

Let’s start with #1. Extension is important because it provides a link between us and the people who do research that impacts us. Simple as that. Though I have known of exceptions, Extension personnel are usually non-biased individuals who deliver research based information to whoever they can. If you aren’t getting your information from someone in Extension then you’re probably getting it from someone who stands to profit from whatever information they provide. This alone makes Extension important.

#2. Extension is suffering a slow and agonizing death. Certainly there are some people out there who choose to ignore what’s going on, or to see it through rose colored glasses, but that doesn’t change what’s happening. I’ve had numerous people show me particular things that Extension has done which are wonderful, but these things are exceptions and not rules. There are a number of reasons why Extension is failing, many of them are economic, but I think the problem sits much deeper than that and that even a major influx of money would fail to turn things around unless Extension administration changes their tune.

There are actually two types of Extension work. The first is commercial, and the second is consumer. Commercial Extension has a strong presence. Extension personnel who work with farmers who grow crops like soy, corn, cattle, etc. have a long history of working with the industry and that relationship is strong and promises to stay strong, though industry reps from pesticide and fertilizer companies are making great headway in reducing the dependence that farmers have on Extension personnel. In horticultural crops (nursery, greenhouse, etc.) I see essentially the same thing. Extension personnel are respected, but day to day information needs, such as how to control a particular pest, come from pesticide and fertilizer companies who put a lot of time and effort into building relationships with their customers. Once upon a time much of the information that pesticide and fertilizer companies doled out did come indirectly from Extension, but nowadays most of these companies have their own experts (Who may have been trained by Extension people). Though I see an eroding dependence on Extension in the world of commercial extension, the place where I have a much greater concern is consumer Extension. Extension personnel who work in consumer Extension deal with the public. Over the years consumer Extension has come to mean Master Gardeners and 4H. Both of these are fine institutions, but if you think that Extension is providing research based information to everyone who needs it by educating these two groups then you’re sadly mistaken. They are competing poorly with companies like Scott’s or businesses like Home Depot. And when the consumer thinks of a horticulture guru they’re more likely to think of Paul Tukey or P. Allen Smith than their extension agent or specialist. The long and short of it is that Extension has better information than any other source, but they’re not very good at disseminating it.

I see two fundamental problems with extension. The first is that extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends. Right now you are reading a blog with some information on it. There’s a garden professors facebook page too. But when the average individual is looking for information on how to care for plants where do they go? That’s right, a search engine – probably google. And when you type in a query about something like “when to seed your lawn”, or “how to fertilize”, what pops up? Mostly information from Lowes or Scott’s or Home Depot, or youtube, or Popular Mechanics or This Old House. Extension articles may or may not be present in searches. When they are I select them, but how many consumers are this discriminating? Sure, it’s possible that Extension originally provided the information that other companies are now spreading around, but you’d never know it by reading the articles. In fact, some of the recommendations are so terrible that I can’t imagine them coming from Extension. Over the last few years something called eXtension has popped up that supposedly provides extension with an online presence. I know that some people are using it. Indeed, this blog is currently housed in eXtension. Seen eXtension pop up in your google searches much? The problem of largely missing trends in information dissemination dovetails nicely with the next problem, that of reward for accomplishment.

The second fundamental problem that I see with Extension is that the experts who we rely on to gather and distribute research based information aren’t given credit for what they do. By experts I mean the University Faculty who are supposed to gather content and distribute it. This problem has many facets, perhaps the most important of which is that University faculty are judged primarily on two things: the number of papers they write and the grants they bring in. I can’t say that the other stuff, like teaching and presentations, are ignored, but they certainly don’t hold the same weight as papers and money. When new faculty are brought in they quickly learn that they need to write papers and bring in money to achieve tenure. So here’s the issue, to get tenure (and keep my job) I need to write papers and get money, but to accomplish my job I need to communicate with people – so should I spend my time and creative energy trying to develop new ways to communicate with people and avenues for disseminating information, or on producing papers and getting money when I know I can just do a few Master Gardener talks giving me enough credit for doing Extension work that nobody will complain. The answer is obvious, and demonstrates another problem with the system, new faculty hires who have Extension appointments are brought on for their ability to write papers and get grants rather than their ability to communicate. For Extension Faculty the number of people reached with useful information and the novel techniques used to disseminate this information are largely ignored. I suppose that if you published a paper about disseminating information you’d get credit, but come on, if I’m stopping to publish a paper about it – it takes a heck of a long time to write a paper – then I’m going to lose any momentum I have over my competition who doesn’t have to publish a paper – like a pesticide or fertilizer company. For most of the world the proof is in the pudding. In academia the proof is in the paper. This is a problem when you’re competing with for-profit companies.

#3. In my opinion Extension can only be saved if academic administrators value Extension work at a level that is at least close to how they value research. Extension people who are competing with for-profit companies to deliver information are hamstrung from the get go not only because they don’t have the financial resources that for-profit companies do, but also because they don’t receive tangible appreciation for their work (such as raises, tenure, and promotion). An “attaboy!” just doesn’t cut it. As anyone in the business world knows, to accomplish a goal you hire good, qualified people and reward them for their successes. If Extension is to succeed that’s really all that needs to be done.

So, you may disagree with me on some of my points above. Good! Let me know about it. I’d be very pleased to have my mind changed.

Science Education and Lichens

Seemingly once a week we see a report in the news about how Science and Math education in the US lags behind many developed countries around the world.

While we typically think of Chemistry and Physics when discussing science education, biology is in there too.


I bring this up because I am continually amazed at how little many people know about basic biology.  Some of this funnels its way into extension calls and e-mails.  A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a distraught homeowner in a Detroit suburb.  “My maple trees are dying”, he told me sincerely.  “There are growths all over them.  They’re big trees.  What do I need to do to save them?”


I tried to get as much information as I could over the phone: How old are the trees? What kind of maple? Describe the site.  Describe the symptoms.  I told him the problem didn’t sound like typical issues with maples in our area (i.e., not manganese chlorosis, tar spot, gall mites, or verticillium wilt).  Diagnosing problems sight unseen is difficult so I asked if he could get me some digital photos.  “Yeah, my son has a digital camera.  We can do that.”  Later that week I got a series of digital photos like the one below.

Lichens on maple

I informed him the growths on the trees were lichens, a combination of a fungus and algae; they’re normal and they don’t harm trees.  I gave him a quick biology lesson on lichens and pointed out that some of the pictures he sent were of lichens growing on the sidewalk.  The algae part of the lichen is photosynthetic so they just need a place to hang out – a tree, a sidewalk or a piece of wood all work fine.

British soldier lichens

One of my all time favorite bumper stickers says, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.  I suspect if this homeowner had happened to call an unscrupulous tree service instead of MSU Extension, they would have been more than happy to ‘treat’ the problem and sign him up for their deluxe 8-step pest and micro-nutrient maintenance plan.  Sometimes a little knowledge can go a long ways.

More Master Gardener Fun!

Am just heading out the door for Fairfax, Virginia – part of the greater Northern Virginia metro area, with traffic that scares the pants off of us country mice. I’m doing the Master Gardener training for the Fairfax Master Gardener Association.  Their attendance is so huge, they have to split into a morning session (150 people) and an evening session (100+). Two and a half hours of training on “herbaceous plants” twice in one day – that’s a lot of yakking even for yours truly.   But what a terrific group. I led the herbaceous sessions in 2007 and was impressed at the diversity of age, ethnicity, levels of knowledge, you name it. A complete cross-section of the area, all with the common desire to learn. Merrifield Garden Center generously (and brilliantly) hosts the training in their large meeting room. Alas, after we all get worked up over the fab perennials, annuals, and tropicals, there’s not much to buy this time of year.
I’ve written about the tremendous contribution of volunteer hours that Master Gardeners make to our state.  As the budget axe drops hither and thither, Extension programs always seem to be at risk. All of the Garden Professors have noted their own state’s struggles with such. Here’s the (slightly) brighter side, though – the Fairfax Master Gardener Association receives no funding from federal, state, or local government. Just some training materials from Extension Same with most of the other associations across the state. Not much to cut, really. In turn, it was calculated that MG volunteers across the state reported 334,000 hours of service for 2009. That’s a pretty good return on very little investment from the state.  Heck, I don’t even have an Extension appointment. But I’m a believer in the MG system, and want to help in whatever way I can, even if it means leaving the peaceful mountains and driving to Northern Virginia. A bit of a bonus is there’s really good shopping up there. Heh.

The decline of Extension and the increased need for science-based information

I hate to be the downer this week, given Bert and Holly’s inspired posts, but reality continues to hit – or bite.  The budget crises in Washington state continues to gut higher education, and one of the hardest hit areas at WSU is Extension.  Land-grant institutions have a federal mandate to provide Extension services, and this sets WSU and similar universities apart from other state schools.  Unfortunately, Extension generates relatively little in terms of outside grants and contracts.  Land-grant universities like WSU tend to put their dwindling faculty resources into hiring those who can bring in multi-million dollar grants.  And as we’ve bemoaned in past posts, that isn’t in gardening or urban horticulture or arboriculture or any of those great topics that you all love to hear more about.

Let’s look what’s happened with Extension specialists at WSU.  Before I came in 2004, the Extension plant pathology specialist had retired.  The position was refilled with someone else.  The Extension entomology specialist retired last year.  His position will be refilled with someone to work with the structural pest control industry (there is some money there).  The questions that come from the public are shuffled around among other faculty, who may or may not have some partial appointment in Extension.  In any case, the public outreach and education aspect of land grant universities everywhere is taking the back seat to bringing in grant dollars and teaching college students.  That means fewer Extension Bulletins published or updated and more reliance on well-funded companies to provide their versions – good or bad – of agricultural sciences.

I’m not going to rail about the idiocy of letting public higher education fail in this country through lack of state funding – I’m sure you can see that for yourselves wherever you live.  Instead, I want to point out an effort to gather the remnant state forces to have a national impact. 

This year I’ve become associated with eXtension (a national group of Extension personnel) in the Community Horticulture Community of Practice.  This is a fledgling effort to construct a national web presence containing relevant, current, science-based information on all things horticultural.  If you check out the link above, you can click on Garden Myths, where you’ll find information from…Jeff Gillman and myself.

It’s going to take a long time to get this web resource organized and populated with good information – but it’s a start.  If you, or someone you know, is interested in helping, be sure to post a comment or email Karen Jeannette, our intrepid coordinator in Minnesota.  (I can provide her email if you are interested.)

“Leave” Them Alone…Adventures in Extension Podcasting

We’re on the topic of communication this week…how can Extension personnel communicate best with their audience/stakeholders. It used to be via racks of Xeroxed “Fact Sheets” at your local Extension office. A few of these are said to still exist, but with states gutting their extension budgets, the costs of printing have become prohibitive.  And more critically…where do YOU go for information?  A musty file full of handouts? Heck no. Electronic media is tailor-made for extension. It’s virtually free, easily updated, and reaches a vast majority of clients.  Bert already covered YouTube, as well as posted the BEST extension video ever, courtesy of Utah State.  So I shall not be redundant.

At Virginia Tech, we have some folks utilizing the Power of Podcasts to communicate whatever point they’re trying to make.  Dr. Mike Goatley, our Turf Extension Specialist, has done especially well with the technology.  He presents practical advice in a very user-friendly package.  He nearly always cites relevant research.  The information presented in the audio file (MP3) is also available in some sort of text format, whether a fact sheet, script, or PowerPoint handout, often with hot links to the research literature cited.  You don’t even need an iPod; just click on the link and your media player of choice will open and play the audio.

For today’s example, I’ve selected one of my favorite Goatley-casts… his guide to lawn leaf management entitled “Leave Them Alone.” Effective, informative, and very convincing…all in 4 minutes.  Take a look and listen here… 

Mike demonstrates with his mulching mower.  The safety glasses are a nice touch. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

Not your father’s extension service

We recently received a question on one of my old posts (Dec. 12, 2009) from a blog reader in Iran (yes, Iran) regarding agricultural extension and asking what’s new in how we disseminate science-based information.  There’s no doubt that things have evolved in agricultrual extension over the years.  There’s an old joke:  Guy walks into a county extension office and the agent is sitting behind his desk, crying.  The visitor asks, “What’s the matter?”   Agent replies, “My farmer died.”  

Hey, I said it was an old joke, I didn’t say it was a funny one.  Point is, the days of field extension agents or campus-based extension personnel going out and holding a farmer’s hand are long gone.  While some may still  think of dim-witted Hank Kimball on “Green Acres” when they think of extension (go to if you miss the reference), most university extension is going increasingly high tech.  I’m sure each on my colleagues can provide several examples of recent extension innovations in there area.  I’ll provide one that we have just launched here at Michigan State.


Obviously the single biggest tool we have for outreach and extension is the internet.  Recently, Dr. Pascal Nzokou, one of the lead members of our Christmas tree extension team launched the MSU Christmas Tree Channel on youtube   

On the Christmas tree channel members of our extension team provide short (1 ½ – 4 minute) videos on various aspects of production: site selection, species selection, pest management, irrigation, nutrition.    

There are several advantages of using youtube for these types of videos.  First, uploading the videos is easy and straightforward.  We had a professional shoot the videos and do the editing but anyone with a digital video camera can shoot videos and load them on to youtube.  For short videos it’s easy to upload videos for viewing even at HD resolution eliminating the ‘Invisibale Gardener expereince’.  Once the video is loaded you can send the link out to people you think will be interested or include the link on your website.  People may also find your video using the search feature depending on the information you include in the description.  Lastly, most people that use the web regularly are used to searching and viewing on youtube so there’s high consumer acceptance.

Published: 11/22/2010 2:21 PM
BlogTitleForUrl: not-your-father’s-extensio

Further decline of “public” education

“The Texas A&M University System is moving ahead with a controversial method of evaluating how much professors are worth, based on their salaries, how much research money they bring in, and how much money they generate from teaching, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports. Under the proposal, officials will add the money generated by each professor and subtract that amount from his or her salary to get a bottom-line value for each, according to the article.”

This bodes ill for faculty like myself who have Extension appointments.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with how Extension works, Extension specialists educate citizens outside university classrooms.  But with declining state support for universities, their administrators in turn focus on income generation from grants and tuition.  Extension specialists do get grants, but for those of us in areas outside food and fiber research (which is what the USDA funds), there’s not much money available.

Bottom line?  According to this model I’m not just worth nothing – I’m worth less than nothing.  I’m not worried about my job (I have tenure after all), but for the direction that outreach education is heading.  What will happen is that Extension specialists will be pushed back into classroom teaching, leaving no time for educating the rest of the state citizens.  Outreach education will become little more than an afterthought.

The ironic thing about this trend is that Extension is one of the biggest bargains states get from their land grant universities.  Extension education includes Master Gardeners as well as other programs tailored to local state and county needs.

It’s sad that Texas A&M puts so little value on outreach education.  What’s even sadder is that this economic approach will undoubtedly be adopted by other state universities.