(Some of) the trouble with tech transfer

Technology transfer is an old-fashioned idea and I think we should get rid of it. Not because it’s old, but because it doesn’t work. Technology transfer assumes that the research world looks like the practice world, and you just need to “transfer” research from one place to the other. The obvious problem is that the research world doesn’t (or doesn’t always) look like the practical industry world. Folks are doing different things in different places, and if we’re going to make sense of how (or whether) they relate to each other, we’re going to have to do work to make that happen. “Research mapping*” to “technology transfer,” because mapping is an active task you perform when you want to figure out how to get from one place to another, and its inevitable that you create some new information in the process.

Technology transfer also tends to imply the idea that whatever is being transferred is good and works. The experts come up with something and then pass it on down the line for use by everyone else. In some ways, that’s great: research is great; sharing is great; getting science to do stuff in practice is great. What’s less great is the ease with which sharing can turn into making assumptions about what someone else will do with your information. You know how it works, you’re going to tell other people how it works, but maybe sometimes they see other ways and those work pretty well too. And if they’re experts in how the practical industry world works, because it’s their life to work with them, then their opinions probably count for a lot.

The gist of the article I just published in the Journal of Wine Research is that Washington state winemakers and growers use research in a lot of different ways, and it’s probably best to respect that – both in terms of supporting the diversity of the industry and in the interest of getting people to listen to the scientists. The point is simple, but it’s packaged with some interesting interview and survey data about what scientific resources winemakers/growers are using and how they see the role of science in their practices. The official Journal of Wine Research version is behind a paywall, but I’ve posted an author’s manuscript version here (please cite the version of record from JWR). I’d be interested in your thoughts.**

This article includes data I hope folks will find useful for thinking about doing industry-oriented science communication, but only starts to hint at the bigger arguments for doing science communication differently, as mapping instead of as tech transfer. The rest? Well, my official dissertation submission date is November 3, 2016, but a few more articles are working their way through the system in the meantime.


*With apologies to any Deleuzians, because this usage conflicts with Deleuze’s ideas about mapping. I’m still working out whether and how I’m going to alter my terminology to deal with that.

**The trouble with publishing articles as you go through your PhD, I find, is that the way I think about this and my research on the whole has changed a fair bit since I wrote and submitted this article about a year ago. If you’re interested in talking theory about technology transfer, research utilization, or the relationships between scientific and industry practice, please give me a ring. I’d love to chat, and this article won’t necessarily give you a good picture of my current ideas on those subjects.

Science versus expertise and winemaker trust (and chickens)

I recently wrote an academic manuscript on, among other things, winemakers’ attitudes toward the relative importance of scientifically-supported information and information from personal experience. Some I’ve interviewed trust the science first, last, and always. Some trust experience (theirs or a neighbor’s, but usually theirs) and question the science, and many more fall into more complicated patterns somewhere in-between. To make it clear from the outset, my research takes the stance that none of these attitudes is better or worse than any other.

On what I thought was a completely unrelated topic, I took an hour out of PhD-ing to walk to the library for a book on chicken keeping on Saturday morning. I’d discovered a relic of a chicken coop at the house I’m renting and, as of yesterday, it has two new occupants*. Browsing around on the internet mostly told me that I wanted the coherence and completeness and ease of use that a book could offer.

My tiny neighborhood library had five books on keeping chickens (which tells you something about the neighborhood). Two were memoirs of woman-chicken romances; not what I needed. One was a tiny and poorly type-set volume that tried to cover ducks and guinea fowl and turkeys too; I set that aside. That left two for serious consideration.

I flipped through the much larger volume: professional and impersonal tone, readable text, black and white diagrams, detailed discussion of the various pelleted foods available and exhortations about how to choose the appropriate variety in the few pages I skimmed. The smaller: personal with lots of references to the author’s experiences, strongly authoritative, readable text, cheerful color pictures. I skimmed a page about kitchen scraps as feed with statements like “my chickens can tell the difference between real food and fake food, so don’t try giving them those plastic rolls you get on airplanes” and “people will tell you that citrus is bad for chickens and I’ve never had any problems but you should probably avoid it.”

I took home Jennie French’s Guide to Chooks** and left the Someone’s Guide to Backyard Fowl on the shelf.

On the walk home I realized what I had done. I had chosen the neighborly voice of “well, I tried it this way and it worked for me” over “poultry scientists agree that…”

I had decided between experience versus (not and, but versus) science. I didn’t want to believe that my chickens needed a diet of > 90% commercial feed plus a few kitchen “treats.” I assumed that that advice descended from nutritional guidelines developed for crowded battery farms looking for maximally efficient short-term egg production. I’m different. I want to live with my chickens, all two of them in their jungly run. The research doesn’t apply to me. But Jennie French talking about keeping chickens on her Australian avocado farm…Well, her farm is hot and dry and my garden is cool and wet, but at least she’s being sensible about chickens as productive members of a household.

I’d done exactly what so many of the winemakers I’ve interviewed do: decide that the research probably doesn’t apply to me and trust the more experienced peer who knows how it really is. Even though I’ve been thinking about this stuff (i.e. where stuff = my research on winemakers’ use of/attitudes toward science) for months now, my chicken book experience clarified two things:

1. I didn’t trust that the research applied to me because I couldn’t tell whether the research applied to me. The book didn’t tell me enough about where it’s authoritative recommendations came from for me to know whether or not to believe them. I heard exactly the same thing from winemakers about many of the recommendations in trade magazines: we need more. So, as a writer, the question becomes: how do I provide enough context to be useful?

2. I decided to trust the authoritative recommendations that were closer to what I wanted to do. I was looking to those books not just for information but for validation, to know that the half-formed plan in my head was probably okay and wouldn’t produce immediate chicken death. I sought confirmation, not challenge, because I didn’t want to have to change too much.

Old-fashioned science communication assumed that the scientists were enlightened, people who didn’t agree with them were backwards, and if they were only told about science they’d agree with it anyway (the much-maligned “deficit model”). It treated scientists like a different species of person or, rather, treated non-scientists like they weren’t quite right in the head. I wonder if guys who preached (and still preach) that model ever take home the neighborly chicken book.


* The ladies are hand-me-down trial chickens — a bit elderly, not laying for their previous owner, and acquired for free — so, backyard poultry enthusiasts, forgive me for not knowing their details. Mixed-breed both, I think: one smallish standard-looking red one (maybe a Shaver-RIR mix?) and one larger but still light white-blue girl with a bit of a fluffy head. And don’t worry. They’re getting a good, high-protein-with-oyster-grit feed alongside pumpkin seeds and rutabaga peels and outer cabbage leaves.

**Chooks = chickens down-under. For all their laid-back attitude, folks seem to want to abbreviate everything around here.