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1608 PD: Art versus science

Mike Gangwer Published on 06 November 2008

One of the predominant themes of many of my columns has been the relationship between art and science. The discussion is a perennial one. And there are as many answers as there are questions.

I recently had the privilege of working in Washington, D.C., at our USDA National Headquarters (NHQ). I have spent many days at NHQ cycling in and out of my foreign assignments, including Afghanistan. I have been home from that one now for 18 months.



My assignment in D.C. was related to my work with Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (CNMPs). I have been gone from the farm in Parkdale, Oregon, for 19 years, and in those years, my work both at Oregon State University and here in East Lansing, Michigan, has centered on the development and implementation of CNMP’s.

Lately, NRCS leadership has chosen to update our national CNMP material. Much of it was based on at least decade-old technology. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the federal level has updated their material, too, which is reflected in recent court decisions that certainly influence how livestock farms will be regulated. NRCS and EPA have a memorandum of understanding that dates back to 1999, known as the Unified Strategy. Together, these two agencies link technical assets with interpretation of regulations, so landowners with livestock on their farms know what the rules are and that everyone has to follow them.

This is not easy work. Decisions made come after long discussions and compromise. That is part of the democratic process. From my perspective, this is a good process, and in fact one we teach to our foreign colleagues in the title of governance.

During my assignment, I was drawn to read a publication produced by the U.S. Army as a planning field manual pamphlet. Titled “Commanders Appreciation and Campaign Design,” it is a primer for using both art and science in solving very complicated problems.

The manual begins with the importance of properly defining the problem. This is difficult work. We often take the easier approach of identifying a symptom and fixing that. The proverbial bandage approach may fix a topical symptom, but the root cause is still manifest as a problem. If the problem is systemic and chronic, the bandage is certainly inadequate, and we are destined to repeat the mistake of failing to cure the problem.


This concept is fully explored in the pamphlet. The commander is tasked with properly identifying the problem, then using two divergent approaches merged into one process. Let me explain this in simple terms.

After identifying the problem, the commander, or supervisor if you will in the civilian world, listens to those around him or her that are big-picture thinkers. They may be scientists like me. We tend to gaze over many horizons and, to some extent, we often are labeled as iconoclasts. That is we do not accept stasis or dogma; we push forward into developing very forward solutions to core problems. We are (and you will notice here that I include myself in this group) providing the commander the long view, the out-of-the-box view, the far-reaching solution that may be implemented many years down the road.

As scientists that border on iconoclastic approaches, we rarely get noticed if the decision-makers are tactical or short-term thinkers. The commander, however, must solve a problem. The pamphlet suggests they should include the big-picture people as part of the solution-making group. The second approach is straightforward: Identify people that have a nuts-and-bolts approach. They operate in the short-term world. They use standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guard the dogma at almost all costs (what some refer to as “staying in the castle”). Change is hard for them, yet, they are valuable to the group in that they bring a stabilizing approach.

The pamphlet suggests that solving large, complicated and structurally complex problems requires a mix of long- and short-term thinkers. And that the first step may be the hardest: Identifying the problem. The long-term thinkers, those living largely apart from this universe, (In the literal sense, we use this term to denote thinking out of the box, and many people are uncomfortable in this realm.) provide great help at identifying the root problem and then suggest (usually) a completely new and different strategy to fix it. (We suggest “abandoning the castle.”) The short-term thinkers, however, rein us in and help bring stability to the group. They are living in the current universe; they are practical and dogmatic and tend to view their role as bandage-appliers. Or they fix current symptoms that require immediate correction rather than take the long view of curing a problem.

The entire basis of the pamphlet is built upon integrating both approaches: Utilizing short-term thinkers to fix symptoms and long-term thinkers that can posit how the root problems (once identified) can be solved.

The term “commander’s appreciation” is derived from the willingness of the commander to listen to a wide range of those around him or her. That includes a combination of those with short-term vision (tactical) and those with long-term vision (strategic). The model is not driven by a top-down approach. The model is inclusive of those at all levels of the hierarchy. The commander must listen and then act, but only after considering those differing viewpoints from all contributors.


What does this discussion have to do with the relationship of art and science? At the core we find that in solving complex problems, there is the need for art; the conceptual and process-oriented scientists that view the world in terms of model. The model is an artifact for where we need to go, over many horizons and perhaps over a long period of time, so the fundamental root problem can be solved. At the core we find another group of scientists that view the world pragmatically. They ask, “What do we need to do right now so that some semblance of stability is maintained?” Such a tactical approach helps us all move forward without abandoning the castle, so to speak. But the artist as scientist will submit, that at some point down the road, we must abandon the castle and go somewhere else. If we do not, the short-term bandage on the symptom soon falls off, and we are still as far away from solving the problem as before.

The concepts fully described in the pamphlet helped me work through my assignment for NRCS in Washington, D.C. It is now up to leadership to use this work in what I call a transformative way. PD

Mike Gangwer
Nutrient Management Specialist