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applied pollination research in entomology has focused on methodology for
rearing bees and controlling bee pests and parasites. I seek a paradigm shift in
the way that research on alfalfa
pollination (and other crops) is approached. I supplement the traditional analytical
reductionist approach inherent in
the scientific method with a greater emphasis on a synthesizing, holistic
approach. Both approaches are
important to fully understand a system and to have the greatest long-term impact
on managing it, but the holistic approach is often neglected.
I focus on systems thinking, emphasizing relationships rather than
isolated entities. Thus, my approach starts with modeling to understand how and
why the components of the system interact and to identify gaps in our knowledge.
My approach continues with monitoring and experimentation, and then
returns to modeling to refine my understanding of interactions and to identify
new questions to address.” –Professional Portfolio, Personal Philosophy
Statement, appendix 4.
Criticism, misunderstanding, and controversy surrounding my holistic approach have characterized my program since its inception. I was hired under controversial circumstances alluded to in Dr. O'Keeffe's June 1998 letter (appendix 6). According to this letter, I was hired because of my holistic approach, but this approach is misunderstood or unappreciated by many alfalfa seed growers. Some growers were particularly put off by the modeling component of my program, which has actually occupied little of my time. More importantly, few of my supervisors understood my approach, and thus were unable to defend it when challenged by the growers. Concerns raised by Dr. Weiss in his letter of denial of tenure and promotion (appendix 10) and in earlier interactions with me suggest that he did not fully appreciate the circumstances surrounding my hiring, or the nature of the controversies (appendices 8,10). I am concerned that he may have been influenced by continued criticism from a few alfalfa seed growers. Dr. Weiss never asked my perspective on the controversy surrounding my position, if he was in fact aware of it. I maintain that a lack of administrative support for my program, leading to the decision to deny me tenure and promotion, represents a failure to uphold my right to academic freedom.
To substantiate this claim I will first discuss the history of loss of support for my program, and demonstrate what I meant when I wrote “I seek a paradigm shift in the way that research … is approached”. Then I will discuss how loss of support for my program delayed my productivity and has left my current Department Head open to inappropriate influence by alfalfa seed growers. The following is my perception of events, which I admit may be different from the perception of others. I welcome the opportunity to hear other perceptions of what happened.
In his June 1998 letter (appendix 6), Dr. O’Keeffe
wrote: “Dr. Karen Strickler was
hired as the candidate of choice…” and “Ecological field research, looking
at the big picture of pollination and seed production in alfalfa as an
agricultural system, requires time over years and/or over locations to
demonstrate the scientific merit of activities and confirm findings. Dr. Strickler
was hired for this kind of research effort –
the department’s view of what was needed for the future efforts.” I believe
that Dr. Quisenberry, who hired me, understood this holistic approach better
than any of my subsequent administrators. Dr.
O’Keeffe’s 1998 expression of my holistic approach was written shortly
before his retirement, after he apparently experienced a “paradigm shift” in
The notion that my research is a paradigm shift comes from Fritjof Capra, 1982, "The Turning Point, Science, Society and the Rising Culture". Capra, author of "The Tao of Physics", argues that throughout science and society we are seeing a change from linear, mechanistic, reductionist, Cartesian thinking to holistic, systems thinking with an emphasis on interactions rather than isolated entities. I was introduced to Capra's book by Dr. George Bird, the nematologist at Michigan State University. He is an avid proponent of systems thinking, central to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). MSU’s Entomology department was divided into opposing camps consisting roughly of lab-oriented reductionist basic researchers vs. systems modeling IPM researchers vs. spray-oriented reductionist extension faculty.
While some of my colleagues understand the holistic nature of IPM systems thinking, many do not understand, or appreciate that it requires a paradigm shift. Many growers also do not understand. For example, the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission (appendix 5) wrote “…[long term] research should not take priority over current problems that may exist in our industry. Alfalfa seed production is unique in that there are many variables and is therefore difficult to do model research.” The commission did not want me to model alfalfa pollination. At the time they wanted me to collaborate with a Canadian colleague who was researching the use of pyrethroids to control insect parasites, a quintessential example of reductionist research. However, Dr. O’Keeffe and the Commission were unaware that my Canadian colleague had specifically declined offers to collaborate. When his new treatment was finally registered, it proved ineffective, and criticism shifted from me to him. Had I been consulted about this issue, Dr. O'Keeffe and I might have set the issue at rest without having to defend my holistic approach in the first place.
This is not to say that I
eschew reductionist or short-term research. I have, in fact, taken on several projects
of that kind at the suggestion
of various members of the industry. What
it means is that I am reluctant to take on projects that seem unlikely to
succeed when the system is viewed holistically. Other researchers in my field are already
taking a reductionist approach,
and have tested many products for parasite and disease control. Products and management
techniques are currently available for all
mortality factors. New ideas worth
testing are rare. Similarly, I do
not deny that the Pollination Ecology program must be responsive to the needs of
the commodity that it serves. I
argue that the University should accept my research philosophy and methodology
as a matter of academic freedom, and not be unduly swayed by outside influences.
In January, 1995, I heard rumors that the new head of the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission, Pat Takasugi, was unhappy with my performance, and that this criticism had something to do with my gender. I shared this information with Dr. Quisenberry. I do not know if she informed Dr. O’Keeffe of the potential problem. In May, 1995, Mr. Takasugi asked to meet with me to discuss changes in my research proposal for the commission. At this meeting he asked to see a copy of my official job description.
Dr. Quisenberry left UI in August 1995, just short of 2 years after I was hired. Soon after, Dr. O’Keeffe was invited to a meeting of the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission, which his June 1998 letter (appendix 6) describes as a “particularly stormy meeting” involving my job description. I did not know that this meeting was going to take place. After the meeting Dr. O’Keeffe chastised me for not keeping him informed about my program; something that I would certainly have done if either of us had known in advance what the growers wanted at their meeting. At a later breakfast meeting arranged by Dr. O’Keeffe with myself and the alfalfa seed commission members, Dr.O’Keeffe assured the growers that I had not been hired unfairly under affirmative action. Rather, I was hired as the candidate of choice because I would look at “the big picture of pollination and alfalfa seed as an agricultural system”. This, I suspect, was the motivation behind the careful wording of the reasons for my hiring that appears in Dr. O’Keeffe’s 1998 letter (appendix 6). He had to counter the allegation of inappropriate use of affirmative action by citing my “long-term” research approach as the justification for hiring me rather than the alternative candidate, whose approach was traditional reductionist.
In the mean time, “I was … aware that the
controversy persisted and was left feeling that appreciation for my program from
the Commission and from the Department had eroded, whether or not it had”
(response to Dr. Weiss's letter of non-support, appendix 10). This feeling contributed to my bout with clinical depression, detailed in
my Feb. 9, 2000 letter to the Provost (appendix 13).
It was a major cause of the slow initial progress of my research.
I believe that Dr. O’Keeffe continued not to fully appreciate my approach for some time after these difficult encounters with the seed commission, because he asked at one point if I was still convinced that bee abundance was an important question in the alfalfa seed system. I was. It was not until Parma Field Days in 1997, an open house for growers and administrators showcasing our research activities, that Dr. O’Keeffe apparently understood my program. I had been asked by the growers to determine if thrips, an insect that feeds on flowers, was causing loss of flower blossoms in alfalfa fields. In addressing this question, I told visitors that if enough bees are introduced into alfalfa seed fields so that pollination takes place rapidly, within a day or so of flower opening, then the flowers do not last long enough for thrips populations to build up. After my presentation Dr. O’Keeffe commented to me “I think I understand now what you are trying to do”. This was apparently one of those “ah ha”, light bulb moments that we all occasionally experience: a paradigm shift.
To my knowledge most of the controversy over my approach died down when Pat Takasugi stepped down as head of the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission to become head of the Idaho Department of Agriculture in January 1996. Other changes, including the appointment of Ding Johnson as chair of the Division of Entomology in September 1997, also helped. Whatever residual controversy remains in the minds of some growers, I believe they are a minority, though possibly a vocal minority. Furthermore, the growers have never had an opportunity to hear an overview of my research program and philosophy. For a number of years they were upset with researchers in general, and reduced the time allotted for research reports at seed schools to 10 –15 minutes per person. Opportunities for informal interactions that might have clarified my situation to faculty colleagues on campus and at other research centers have been rare, and feedback to me about the extent of the lack of understanding also has been rare. My administrators and Department faculty first heard my overview when I presented my T&P seminar on August 10, 1999. This seminar was not videotaped, so faculty who were not present had no opportunity to hear it. Furthermore, Dr. Weiss missed some of the seminar. I noticed that he left when I started to discuss my model, perhaps due to his medical condition. Thus, he missed a critical argument in my seminar for understanding my approach. Misconceptions about my program persist.
Dr. Weiss met with me on only three occasions prior to submission of my tenure and promotion package. None of these meetings lasted for more than 30 minutes. In all of the meetings, Dr. Weiss expressed concern that I would not be tenured. In one of the meetings he advised me to find another job prior to the tenure decision. None of these meetings involved any discussion of the nature of my program or my systems approach to research. We did not discuss the history of controversy with the alfalfa seed commission, although I mentioned my concern about this issue at our first meeting on July 24, 1998. After my professional portfolio was submitted, but before my T&P seminar, Dr. Johnson relayed to me a number of questions raised by Dr. Weiss that suggested to me a lack of understanding of my systems approach (appendix 8). Statements in e-mail correspondence with Dr. Johnson, echoed in Dr. Weiss’s letter of non-support (appendix 10), characterize my modeling efforts as a “narrow course of research” and “single area of research”. In response I wrote (appendix 10): “My model of alfalfa pollination is not one project among others in pollination ecology, to publish once and then move on. It is the whole project, what my program is about. I conceptualize everything that I do, whether it involves the bees and the flowers, alfalfa pests, environmental factors, or bee diseases, in terms of the model in Strickler 1996, with appropriate modifications. This is what I mean when I say that my research is ‘holistic’, a systems approach.” A similar misconception led to a devaluing of one of my publications because he assumed that it was based on research findings presented elsewhere. In fact this was incorrect (Response to Dr. Weiss, appendix 10).
In another conversation before my P&T seminar, Dr. Johnson relayed to me Dr. Weiss’s recommendation that I withdraw my candidacy for promotion and tenure and not prepare a seminar, because the chance of success was not good. According to Dr. Johnson, Dr. Weiss asked him to “counsel her out”. I chose to go ahead with the seminar because I wanted this first opportunity to tell the department about my program1. Dr. Weiss dated his memo to Dean Branen (appendix 10) with his reasons for not supporting me on August 23, 1999. This was prior to receipt of at least two letters from outside reviewers (appendix 11) and the recommendation of the department T & P committee, which were positive. It was also prior to the departmental vote, which was mixed (51% for tenure, 39% for promotion, appendix 10).
Perhaps Dr. Weiss has a bias against modeling, as many reductionist researchers do. However, as an entomologist with an interest in IPM, he is probably familiar with a holistic systems approach and modeling efforts that are a mainstay of the field. In other contexts I suspect he would not have singled out modeling for special mention. But modeling was of particular concern to the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission under Mr. Takasugi in 1995, and in the Commission’s letter included in my third year review in 1996 (appendix 5). Dr. Weiss would have met with Mr. Takasugi4, current head of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, soon after coming to UI on 1 July 1998. At no time has Dr. Weiss approached me directly to clarify the rationale for my research program or to hear my perspective on problems in my relationship with the alfalfa seed industry. To assume that I would not get tenure without having heard my story is an abuse of discretion and a violation of procedure (FSH 3320 A-c). To object to my research approach given that it was the reason for hiring me, without understanding its history or philosophy, and with the suggestion of unwarranted influence of the alfalfa seed industry is a violation of my academic freedom.
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