Perhaps the slogan for university Extension researchers should be ‘Last one out the door, shut off the lights.’ Just one year short of the 100-year celebration of the Smith-Lever Act that formalized the Extension service, its survival is threatened. State and federal funds have fallen severely. At the same time, older Extension researchers are retiring, and younger ones are leaving for private industry. It is a perfect storm, and there may not be an easy solution. At least Mike Gray hasn’t found one. The University of Illinois, Department of Crop Sciences Professor of Agricultural Entomology and Assistant Dean for the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Program, recalls a better day.
“In 1986, University of Illinois Extension had 92 full-time equivalent, Extension faculty, tenure track positions,” said Gray.
“The most recent figures for 2013 have us down to 16. That is an 82.6 percent loss. There have been reductions in research and teaching positions at the university as well, but it is applied Extension researchers who have taken the brunt of the cuts.”
Extension researchers like Gray are stretched thin. His Extension entomologist position includes travel around the state talking to growers at meetings and field days. In addition, he carries out an applied research program with an emphasis in corn.
However, he spends 50 percent of his time trying to guide and direct shrinking resources for ANR programs, a full-time staff position at other land-grant universities.
How did things get to the present situation? Gray said it is a confluence of factors, common in every state in the country. State and federal cuts to applied agricultural research and Extension have played a major role, but academic support has also been slashed. As universities turn to tuition hikes to carry the load, they allocate greater shares of resources to departments and colleges with the greatest numbers of instructional units and undergraduates. These students and their parents are paying the bills, funding academics, not applied research and Extension programs. Lower student enrollment in agricultural programs as compared with other academic units has resulted in a significant shifting of resources to those departments in our land-grant universities. As a result, Gray has fewer peers to turn to with expertise in applied entomology, plant pathology, agronomy or weed science. When current educators and those remaining 16 Extension researchers retire, the question is not who will fill the positions, but will they be filled.
“I am not optimistic,” said Gray. “I don’t see things turning around, unless we come up with new, imaginative ways to fund those kinds of positions. Perhaps we will have to look at the private sector for endowed positions and funding streams to support them.”
Ironically, the cutbacks are having one positive effect. Extension specialists are collaborating as never before. A recent alert from Gray to Illinois growers cited work by an entomologist at Michigan State and a research team at Iowa State.
“Sharing information with other universities is essential to the Extension research mission,” said Gray. “We also lean on non-Extension funded faculty to help shoulder the burden.”
Talking to growers and other Extension clientele around the state, Gray gets the impression people don’t realize the extent of the cuts. He fears that people won’t realize the value of Extension based, non-commercial research until it is too late.
“I think it will be a real shame to lose what has been an incredible and unique American strength and source of unbiased information,” said Gray. “Once this infrastructure is gone, I am convinced it will be nearly impossible to rebuild. I think we need to pause and reflect on how we can sustain what has been an incredible success so far.”