Jack's Insights August 2017

By Jack Whittier, Director, Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Recently I had the opportunity to be at the Lied Lodge and Conference Center in Nebraska City, with about 50 others in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) Vice Chancellor’s Leadership Council (VCLC). The VCLC is chaired by Dr. Mike Boehm, IANR Vice Chancellor since January. The Council is composed of the Center Directors and Department Heads across IANR. 

Jack Whittier

This Council meets monthly in Lincoln, and once each summer we get together for a couple of days of planning and prioritizing. Previously, this summer gathering was called the IANR Leadership Retreat.  However, as an indication of Mike’s forward-looking approach in this role, and perhaps influenced by his background in military strategy, the gathering is now called the IANR Leadership Advance.  Mike has made it clear the neither he nor any in IANR should be in the mode of retreating, rather we are advancing.  An exciting approach and philosophy brought simply by a shift in meeting titles.

Since Mike arrived in January, we have been discussing, revisiting, and updating the priority areas for IANR. As Mike has been learning about where the Institute has been, where it is now, and establishing with us where we are going, he has recognized the vision and upward trajectory set by his predecessor, Ronnie Green. Ronnie is now the Chancellor for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

A major part of our Advance in Nebraska City was to discuss and refine the six priority focus areas of IANR. These six areas are:

Science Literacy – An enhanced capacity, both at the individual and collective levels, to make decisions grounded in science-informed analyses of complex, real-world systems and their associated challenges.

Stress Biology – Understanding the underlying biology of stress in animal, plant and human systems.  What allows some organisms to withstand stresses of heat, drought, cold, etc., while other organisms have little to no tolerance?  How can this understanding be used to improve production, health and comfort?

Healthy Humans – A continuum of investigation stretching from fundamentals of molecular biochemistry, to food matrices, to organized tissues, to nutrient metabolism, to physical and mental well-being, all within a sphere of interaction between humans and microorganisms.

Healthy Systems for Agricultural Production and Natural Resources – This priority discussion included issues of soil health, spatial sciences, Nebraska One Health, resiliency and risk analysis, ecosystem services and non-market economics, and animal systems.

Computational Sciences – Consists primarily in obtaining high-quality data, getting it analysis-ready, and enabling others to replicate any analyses through access to software and data.  To an extent this is an instrumentation, hardware (i.e. sensors), and software problem since many steps precede interpretation and application. 

Drivers of Economic Vitality for Nebraska – Nebraska’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, manufacturing, small businesses, and utilization of our natural resources.  IANR plays a critical role in the state economy through support of the development of new businesses, through research and development of new products that utilize commodities grown in the state, and through strengthening rural communities.  This priority area brings together faculty, staff, and students working in areas that directly impact the Nebraska economy.

I can imagine as you read the above descriptions of the six areas you may be saying something like, “Wow, a group of stuffy Ph.D.’s must have written this.”  Well, other than the “stuffy” part, you are correct; these explanations were written by what Mike Boehm refers to as Working Group Communities within the faculty of IANR.  Thus the need for the next and perhaps most important step in this process of defining priorities for the future of IANR.  This next step is to “ground truth” these, as Mike puts it, with our clientele and stakeholders. 

This step will happen in early November when a group of Nebraska stakeholders will be invited to Lincoln for a day-long listening and refining session to assure that these six priority areas are understandable and pertinent to the current and future needs of Nebraska.  I will likely be asked to suggest people from the Panhandle to participate in this session.  I will be happy to do this to assure that we in the far west have the opportunity to be heard and provide input to this important step.

Now, I realize that this “Jack’s Insights” may be rather mundane and boring – I am sure those are the words my wife, Robynn, who serves as my first draft proofreader, will say.  However, I believe it is important to this region to stay in touch with what is happening in Lincoln. This will help assure that our voices are at the table in important conversations that will drive future funding and faculty decisions.  Thanks for listening!  Have a great month, and stay cool!