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Research and community—the university extension model

Since I last blogged, I’ve been thinking about university extension activities and talking about them with a number of friends, clients and colleagues. I’m aware of two universities in the US with major extension programs; Wisconsin and Florida. My colleague Mark Hostetler at UF says that the vision in the US is for every state to have one university that does extension work.

So what is university extension? According to the UF website, ‘Extension is a partnership between state, federal, and county governments to provide scientific knowledge and expertise to the public.’ They call the extension program ‘Solutions for your life’ – what a great name!

Among the sustainable living work that Mark’s involved in are his Living Green and Resource Efficient Communities programs.

From my extensive sample size of three cases, it seems that each university has its own areas of interest – UF has a focus on agriculture and environment, including low impact communities, while the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) ‘provides statewide access to university resources and research so the people of Wisconsin can learn, grow and succeed at all stages of life’. UWEX fulfills the tradition of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – extending the ‘boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state through its four divisions of continuing education, cooperative extension, entrepreneurship and economic development and broadcast and media innovations.’ North Carolina State University covers similar topics to UF, and also has a stormwater and erosion control program. Dr Bill Hunt from that program will be speaking at the 7th South Pacific Stormwater Conference in Auckland in May this year and it would be good to question him about how he works with communities.

The only formal extension activities I’ve been able to find in New Zealand are in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), because it ‘works right across the biological value chain from primary producers through to retailers and consumers – from “paddock to plate”‘. Without calling it an extension program (though MAF has investigated whether government should play a role in extension), MAF does work ‘closely with the Ministry for the Environment, district and regional councils and industry groups in promoting high standards of natural resource and environmental management and supporting the primary sector to remain sustainable, resilient and productive’.

Do our universities do extension work? Many of them run continuing education courses, but formal extension programs seem to be lacking.

Our Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are charged ‘with promoting the transfer and dissemination of research, science and technology’ or, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘In other words, they have the role of “making a difference” with the research they produce. They do this via strategic, long-term relationships with sectors … to support, sustain, challenge and develop existing sectors and also to lead development of new sectors.’ However they also have to deliver a ‘return on equity’. So it seems that some extension-style activities may be carried out as part of their public good research funding.

I agree with comments by Simon Stokes in his President’s comment that staff of regional councils, are in fact already providing an extension service in the pastoral farming sector. I know many regional and territorial councils do a huge amount of work with their communities, and that there is growing involvement of various research bodies working with them and communities in areas as diverse as farming, solid waste recycling, waste minimization and urban and rural stream bank restoration.

Extension is a wonderful community development model and there could be real benefits in applying some thinking from that model to the good work that is already being done by a number of agencies.

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