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Ag, Extension establish program for rapid response

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 19 - February 5, 1998

Faculty members from four of the university's colleges will participate in a "rapid-response program" to quickly get science-based information into the hands of policy makers when they are faced with sudden issues, such as last summer's Pfiesteria scare.
"The purpose of this is to let policy makers know we are here, that we have expertise, and that we can help," said Andy Swiger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "We've got outstanding faculty members, and it would be a shame if this tremendous resource for the state isn't tapped when it is most needed."
Built around the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension, the program will be able to draw on faculty members in Agriculture, Forestry and Wildlife Resources, Human Resources and Education, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, faculty members at Virginia State University who are associated with the Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension will be involved.
"Actually, our response to any given situation will be dictated by the circumstances surrounding it," Swiger said. "In that respect, this program will be very flexible. Our responses can range from simply giving a news reporter some perspective on an issue to organizing a research effort to address a particular issue."
Judith Jones, associate director of Extension, is coordinating the program for all the colleges involved. "We will depend on staff and faculty members, both on campus and off, to help us identify issues that are emerging in various communities," Jones said. "We want policy makers and government officials to call on us, but we also want to be prepared to go to them offering our services before we're asked."
Jones said the program is ready and can be activated when necessary. "We have a number of standing teams that will keep track of certain issues," she said. "But we also have the flexibility to establish ad-hoc teams. We're looking at involving anyone in our organizations, or anywhere at the university, based on the situation. Just because we haven't tapped some people on the shoulder doesn't mean we won't be picking up the phone and asking them if they want to help."
The standing teams include food safety, headed by Cameron Hackney, professor of food safety and technology; natural resources and water quality, headed by Jim Johnson, associate professor of forestry; and biotechnology, headed by Charles Hagedorn, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences.
Other standing teams are tobacco, headed by Wayne Purcell, professor of agricultural and applied economics; human and animal health, jointly headed by Bob Martin, director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and Eleanor Schlenker, professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise; and intensive livestock, headed by David Kenyon, professor of agricultural and applied economics.
Swiger said he has wanted to implement a program such as this for some time. The Pfiesteria scare last fall highlighted the need to do something along these lines.
"We have a number of scientists who could contribute to the state's response to Pfiesteria, but we weren't asked," Swiger said. "A good team of scientists was put together, but the state very nearly missed out on the vast store of information we have here."
He said George Flick, university distinguished professor of food science and technology, was eventually included on the state's Pfisteria team.
"This was a case where policy makers were facing a highly technical issue while they were under intense public pressure to take action," Swiger said. "We were nearly left out of it because we weren't asked and it took us too long to step forward and ask to be included. This Rapid Response Program really isn't anything new for us. As Virginia's land-grant university, we should respond to certain issues, and this is just a way to emphasize and formalize our response."