Improving Communities, Improving the World Basche teaches students to communicate their science
Policy affects everything – and Andrea Basche is teaching her University of Nebraska–Lincoln students to understand the role of policy in the agriculture that helps to feed the world.
Basche believes science supports the policies that promote conservation of water, soil and other natural resources. “Policy matters because all the rules govern what we do,” Basche explained.
Basche is an assistant professor of cropping systems in the university’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, where she challenges undergraduate students in her crop management classes to think about the sustainable use of natural resources in crop production.
It’s all to meet the goal of feeding the 9 billion people who are expected to live on Earth by 2050.
Basche thinks about policies as ways to improve communities and applies the term broadly, from local to university, to state, federal and international levels. She looks for ways to better use science to support policies and programs related to agriculture, the environment and sustainability.
“Everything we do is embedded in a political system. The crops that we grow and livestock that we raise in large part relate to what our environment allows us to do – but they also are a result of the economics and market infrastructure that support them,” Basche said.
“I think a lot about what our soils are going to look like 30 years from now. If we continue to have heavier storms and more variable weather, what will happen to our soils?” she asked. So, Basche studies soil management and diverse landscapes with the goal of having a more resilient, more prosperous landscape in Nebraska’s future.
“Resilience” to Basche means having a landscape, an environment and people who can bounce back from extreme events. “If you have a bad drought in the future – which we anticipate we will continue to have – do you have people who can stay in business because of that? Do you have communities that stay afloat?”
Basche also considers the state of the farm economy when she thinks of resilience. “How do we contribute to diversifying opportunities for more young people who want to do more in farming? How do we keep young people in Nebraska? How do we make our systems more adaptable to change?” she asked.
Basche joined the university in December 2017, attracted to the land-grant system at the University of Nebraska and the “bigger purpose” that system serves. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Fordham University in biological sciences, a master’s degree from Columbia University in applied climate science and a doctorate in crop production and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.
Science communication is important because people are more likely to appreciate scientific research if they see the value it has in their own lives, she said. She works with her agronomy students to be sure they can communicate their own science.
“I think about how a general public wants to know ‘why does this matter for me?’ The research we do all fits into these larger questions that have societal value. Being able to articulate that is really important,” Basche said.
Because of her interest in how the broader impacts of science are used in democracy and throughout the world, she said she has taken it upon herself to become a better communicator. “Science communication is not an innate skill; it’s an intentional skill some scientists have worked to cultivate, myself included,” she said.
“As a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and not being from a farm, I think those are things I can share as a teacher and as a mentor,” she said.
She also works with her students to become more conscious of agricultural jargon. “I think some people can feel left out if they don’t understand the terminology of production agriculture,” she said.
FINDING DATA, DOING RESEARCH
“We live in an age where there is so much information; how can we extend the information that already exists? Part of science literacy is knowing where to find good, reliable data and making more of what already is available,” she said. “Data mining” is the process of finding reliable research information that already has been produced by scientists, she said.
“There is so much information and scientific research that’s already been published. There’s so much data that gets collected by the government and by other entities. How do we pull that all together to say more?” Basche asked. She has worked on meta-analysis projects that have helped scientists understand how agricultural management impacts environmental outcomes, such as nitrous oxide emissions and soil water storage.
Making the most of soil’s water-holding capacity makes moisture more available during dry periods, so she researches management techniques that can increase it, such as planting cover crops to hold the soil, improving grazing techniques and tilling the soil only when absolutely necessary.
Basche hopes to influence the next generation of decision-makers so they are able to make more systems-oriented decisions.
“I try to bring in examples that demonstrate that the decisions that are made on farms are not made ‘in a vacuum,’ but rather to show how they’re imbedded in this policy and human institutional system. It’s not just about the environment, but the factors that influence it. My students will be the next generation of leaders. These are people who are going to be influencing decision-making in some way. If they can see their roles in the bigger system I think that will be a good contribution I can make to their work in the future,” Basche said.
Anyone involved in agriculture can be considered a decision-maker, she said; not only farmers and ranchers, but also agronomists, insurance agents, seed salespeople and co-op employees. “Consumers also are decision-makers,” she added.
THE BIG PICTURE
Tomorrow’s scientists should be prepared to deal with resiliency in the face of challenges such as water pollution, climate change and shifting consumer demands that impact the world, she said.
“I have to try to get students to see the bigger picture and be interested in not just the production side of agriculture, but also the environmental sustainability and the communication sides,” Basche said. “I think the long-term goal will be whether we have a resilient future. I hope I can contribute to some solutions that have to do with resiliency of our landscape and protecting soil and water resources.”