A package of Purdue University magazine articles explains how the College of Agriculture is addressing issues of public controversy and preparing students to help resolve them in their careers.
All of the articles, by the Department of Agricultural Communication, are available on the Purdue Agricultures website at https://ag.purdue.edu/agricultures.
In the article titled "When Research Becomes Controversial," four researchers discuss their role in reporting their findings that sometimes put them in the middle of intense public debate on issues that elicit starkly opposing views from advocates on either side. Agricultural economist Wally Tyner said his research into the economic prospects of biofuels is closely followed by advocacy groups supporting and opposing biofuels, and both sides have used the same research to advance their contrasting views.
Tyner is OK with that. "Our job is to produce the best, most objective analysis we can," he said. "Their job is to spin it for their own interest."
The panel discussion was part of the college's Issues Engagement Initiative, which includes the pilot Issues 360 Fellows program that is helping students learn how to engage in issues of public controversy while avoiding advocating for a position.
The initiative sponsored a presentation by Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity, who said the food industry must openly demonstrate to consumers that it has their best interests in mind as the public becomes increasingly wary of government and big business. He detailed CFI research, reported in the article "Cautious Consumers," into how the industry could build trust through greater transparency.
"The reality is trust in our food system is very fragile," Fleck said.
"Issues in Agriculture" gets inside a classroom where students develop their skills to foster agreement on tough agricultural issues, such as controversies over proposed large-scale hog operations and whether the sale of raw milk for human consumption should be permitted in Indiana. The course, "Dealing with Controversial Issues in Agriculture," includes role-playing to get students thinking about how people with different backgrounds and causes might approach a particular issue.
"If we can do more of this in real life and actually put ourselves in the shoes of somebody who comes from a very different perspective, it would help us have a more open mind when we're trying to work through these problems," said agricultural economics professor Janet Ayres, who teaches the class.
For more information about research, visit Ag Research at Purdue.