NZ underestimates social scientists

In 2007 I accepted a job in New Zealand as a senior social scientist in the agricultural sector.

At the interview, I had been led to understand that the country was in need of good social scientists and, like other returning New Zealanders, I was keen to bring my overseas experience and skills home.

However, I discovered New Zealand does not need social scientists.

It was a shock when the pre-election policy briefing by Federated Farmers explicitly stated that, in its view, social science should not be funded.

While this was moderated somewhat by the incoming government, it has nevertheless made it clear that New Zealand should focus on the development of shiny new technologies.

The role of social scientists is to take these new technologies to the farmers and make them want to use them to function as agricultural extensionists.

Here is my problem: agricultural extension is not a social science.

While in the outside world, social scientists are economists, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, geographers and so on and are valued for their contribution to understanding human behaviour (for use in policy development, land-use change modelling, systems development, etc.); in New Zealand we are extensionists, purveyors of widgets (mechanical tools, computer software, hybridised plant varieties, bio-engineered products, etc) dreamed up by the technologists.

Why is it, when the rest of the world understands the need for social science, New Zealand fails to appreciate its value?

Agricultural extension, on the other hand, appears to be a priority.

Extension was a good idea when farmers lived isolated hermit-like lives on small farms in the middle of nowhere or when farmers limited education hindered their ability to pick up information from books and other sources.

It may even have been a good idea when farmers didn't have telephones or computers or cars.

In other words, it was a good idea one or two centuries ago.

In my career I have interviewed hundreds of farmers and, of one thing I am certain: farmers are not stupid.

Why, then, do we waste public money spreading innovations to some of the most innovative, clever and networked people in the country? What is it that we think an extensionist with a Masters degree but limited experience in farming can teach farmers that they couldn't find out for themselves?I have a theory it is not about social science at all but about the failure of investors in technology to come up with innovations that farmers want to use.

It is easy, in this case, to complain to all who will listen that the technology is fine if only we could make people understand that they need it.

The problem with widgets is that if they are no good they will not be used, no matter how much money has been spent on them, how many scientists believe they can boost farm incomes or productivity, or how much they are sold by extensionists.


In my opinion, if we are looking to improve our agriculture, social scientists need to work at the opposite end of the innovation chain.

When an issue arises we need to approach farmers (and not just leading farmers who often do not represent average farmers) and find out what they are doing, what they want done, what solutions they already have, what the associated issues might be, and so on.

We should be guiding and facilitating scientists into a dialogue with farmers to produce technologies that are both useful and readily adoptable, representing farmers' views to scientists rather than scientists' views to farmers.

I am writing this from Trondheim in Norway where I'm working with farmers and a government that understands top-down technology development is not the answer to all agriculture's problems.

Rob Burton is a senior researcher with the Centre for Rural Research (Bygdeforskning) in Trondheim, Norway. He is a visiting researcher at CSAFE, University of Otago.


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