The Care and Feeding of Academics
In my experience, many Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators (NWCOs)have a less than positive opinion of academics. You have heard the comments, “those who can, do, those who can’t teach”, ivory tower, and “Ph.D., piled higher and deeper.” As a former full-time NWCO, I understand those comments. NWCOs are people of action. They are frustrated by academics who want to “study everything.” For example, I know of one professor suggested that a study be done on how to manage an overpopulation of Canada geese. But NWCOs already know how to solve the problem, namely kill more geese. NWCOs think that the idea of having to spend years studying a problem as simple as resolving goose over population makes about as much sense as someone spending more to get themselves out of debt.
Understanding the Academic’s Situation
While appreciating the NWCO perspective, my time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has given me greater sensitivity to the needs and challenges facing academics. My goal in this article is to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and help NWCOs understand academics. For I believe that with better understanding, some of the emotional dissatisfaction felt by NWCOs can be diminished and lead to ways for both sides to work together more constructively.
Types of Universities
Let’s begin by explaining the three kinds of academics involved in land-grant universities, researchers, extension, and teaching. Land-grant schools typically receive state funding and also are heavily involved in research. Private colleges are not prohibited from researching wildlife damage and agricultural topcs but are less likely to have courses or faculty relating to those subjects. Researchers, as the term suggests, are faculty that are tasked with the discovery of new knowledge. They have to perform experimental studies and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals. As can be expected, research is time-consuming and expensive. Remove any thought that faculty have legions of students waiting to provide free labor for research. Research at the graduate level requires money. Lots of money. To illustrate, it costs over 71,000 dollars (2010 dollars) for a university to cover a grad student for the 3 years of their master’s program. While graduate programs only last two years, some universities require additional monies to ensure that a student is covered beyond the minimum as a cushion in case research gets delayed. The money for that student can come from a variety of places. If the school is wealthy, it may come from a scholarship endowment. In a few instances, industry gives the money to have some work done by an independent third party. More likely, the money comes from research grants.
The Problem of Money
Grants, despite TV ads to the contrary, are not easy to obtain. Even highly successful grant writers only achieve a success rate of 33%. That means out of every three grants applied for, only one is received. Nor are the forms easy to fill out. I have participated in half-a-dozen grants at this point, and I can assure you that it takes hours of time to fill out the forms. It is not unusual to take 24 hours to fill out the paperwork for one grant. To put that in perspective, can you take 3 days away from paying work for the chance to get a grant? To add insult to injury, grants for wildlife related projects are low budget. Most are in the low five figures. When you consider the cost of travel (.55/mile) plus equipment, plus hourly rates for field staff, plus the time needed to write up the research for publication, the money does not go very far.
Once the research has been gathered, the researcher must write up the findings. If a grad student is on board, then he/she does this initial draft but the faculty person must continually edit and return the document for revisions. Once the document is deemed ready, it is sent out for internal review, meaning the paper is passed around for others to critique. Changes are made. Weeks later, the paper is finally sent to a journal for consideration for publication. 3-4 months later, you may get an answer. 99% of the time, the paper is rejected and is full of comments from the journal reviewers about how the paper must be improved. The researcher must then decide whether to make changes and resubmit or send the document to a different journal. When and if the paper is finally accepted by a journal, the researcher must then pay a fee for laying out the document for publication. Yes, you read that right. While WCT pays writers to write articles, researchers write papers and then pay the journal to publish them (in addition to paying the journal for a subscription to read it). The average cost is 100 dollars per printed page.
Finally, research faculty must publish a number of articles each year. At University of Nebraska-Lincoln, research faculty must publish 5 articles a year. I trust you get the idea that a lot of projects have to be underway in order to have enough research going on in order to keep the publishing pipeline full. That is both a blessing and a curse for NWCOs. On the one hand, researchers are interested in your projects. On the other hand, faculty need money in order to move these projects forward or they have to be able to find a grant large enough to pay for the costs of performing the research.
Extension faculty are tasked with putting knowledge to work. They take research and package it in a way that is understandable for the public. Extension faculty create workshops and seminars in order to disseminate best practices to the public. Very few Extension faculty specialize in wildlife damage management. There just isn’t enough work or money in wildlife damage management to justify that kind of investment on the part of the University. However, those in the position are passionate and heavily invested. Because of their role with Extension, these faculty do not have the same publishing pressure as the researchers. So instead of 5 publications a year, they may only have to have two.
The final category, teaching faculty, have the role of instructing students. They are busy giving lectures, grading, keeping up with their field, and creating new courses. Like the extension faculty, teaching faculty have less publishing pressure.
To make matters confusing, faculty are rarely just fall under one of these categories. Universities frequently hire faculty with split appointments. For example, a professor may be 50% research, 20% teaching and 30% extension. This breakdown would equate to 3 peer-reviewed publications per year, teaching one course per year, and all the remaining time spend on outreach programs such as seminars, workshops, and publications for public consumption. Furthermore, a professor may have a 12-month appointment or a 9 month appointment. The former means the professor works year-round. The latter means the professor works for only 9, typically the equivalent of the school’s academic year.
I hope this helps readers recognize that faculty are extremely busy. Note that I have not even begun to explain the amount of time faculty have to spend with the endless committee meetings they must attend.
More importantly, I want to provide NWCOs with strategies on how they might work more effectively with professors to enhance mutual cooperation.
Tips for Handling/Dealing with Academics
Tip #1. Bring the money. NWCOs have to decide whether they want their industry to mature or remain stagnant. Research is expensive. With federal dollars being shifted away from traditional fish and wildlife related projects, NWCOs will have to decide whether they are willing to fill in the gap. Many times, faculty can bundle multiple sources of funding together to meet project needs. In fact, more grants actually require public/private partnerships. So funding a project actually helps faculty get more money. Remember that funding needs are correlated to the size of the project. Some research projects only need $5,000. Others will need more. It all depends on what you are looking for. NWCOs wanting their lures or devices tested by a neutral third party should consider the advantages that academic research can give their products.
Tip #2. Invite academics to speak. Inviting academics to speak at your conferences is an excellent way to expose them to your issues. They are willing to come provided you pay their expenses. You will need to notify them at least 6 months in advance. Make the letter official, clearly explaining that their costs will be covered, and then give a deadline for response. Be sure to research their background and suggest topics they could speak on that would be related to their research and/or expertise.
As a corollary, attend their meetings and read their literature. I think it is patently unfair for NWCOs to complain about the lack of attention from academics when NWCOs refuse to attend academic meetings such as the Vertebrate Pest Conference and the Wildlife Damage Management Conference. Even if you can’t make those meetings, do you read the proceedings when they come out? They are not that expensive. You can buy back issues from the ICWDM.org store.
Tip #3. Do your homework. Before asking an academic if he/she is interested in a particular research project, find out if anyone has done any work on the topic already. Google the subject and be sure to consult colleagues and the digital commons. In addition, make sure you have an idea of how much money you can come up with. Faculty don’t have time to be pursuing some project idea without knowing if there is any money available. Show the faculty member you are serious by doing some of your own due-diligence and putting some of your own time in the project.
Tip #4. E-mail first. Academics are busy. I know faculty who purposely don’t use a full signature line in their e-mails because they don’t want to make it easy for people to contact them. This is particularly true with phone calls. So e-mail your questions/comments first. Be sure your e-mail is clear, concise, and proof read. Furthermore, make sure that you include ALL your contact information. I can’t begin to tell you how annoying it is to get an e-mail from a NWCO who signs the e-mail “Bob”. So now I am left with trying to figure out “Bob who?” “Bob where?”
Tip #5. Follow up. If you are like me, you hate pestering people. I figure if someone is truly interested they will do what they said they were going to do. Well in a perfect world that is true. But with academics, you have to nag them. Too often in Universities the urgent takes priority over the important. So you have to be sure your project or issue gets into the urgent category. This is why I keep talking about money because money trumps everything.
I hope this helps NWCOs better understand the world of the University. Better awareness of others can go a long way to greater appreciation and improved cooperation. And I think that is a worthy goal.
About the Author
Stephen M. Vantassel, CWCP, ACP, MNI is a Project Coordinator, Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management http://icwdm.org at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. These comments are his own and are NOT endorsed by UNL. This article originally appeared in Wildlife Control Technology magazine.