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It’s All Part of the Process

Carl Dahlen, NDSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, takes you through the university research process from start to finish.

Recently a group from NDSU attended the American Society of Animal Sciences’ Midwest Section meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. This meeting is an opportunity for scientists and industry professionals to present research findings, listen to seminars, and network with other professionals in their field.

cattle research subjectMany producers may want to learn about the research process and how we go from an idea to sharing the results of a project. During the past year, I’ve given you a glimpse of ongoing research projects in “The Research Corner” section of this newlsetter. This month’s article will describe the rest of the story. It will take you through the university research process from start to finish.

The Big Idea

Researchers get research ideas from a variety of places. To be successful, a scientist has to be very inquisitive, but we all see things slightly differently and have a different area of focus. Therefore, we get our inspiration to perform new research projects from different places.

The type of research I conduct would be called applied research by most in the scientific community. Applied research is termed as such because after results are obtained, the technique deemed most appropriate by the research could be applied immediately, or implemented by producers.

My inspiration for research projects often comes from conversations with producers about issues they are facing, questions that don’t have good answers, or opportunities that may be present to improve profitability and/or productivity. Applied research uses techniques or principles from basic research to solve real-world problems.

In the context of biology, basic research is the type that explores how biological systems work at every level, down to the level of individual cells within a body and into individual components of cells. Ideas for basic research may stem from general curiosity regarding how systems work and how manipulation or insults to bodily systems impact physiological response (for example, what influence does nutrient restriction during pregnancy have on development of blood vessels in the placenta?).

Both types of research are needed to advance the production of food and fiber, but the importance of basic research often is difficult to understand. Another way to look at the issue would be to use the term “foundational research.” Basic research often is called foundational research because concepts uncovered during basic research result in a “foundation” of knowledge for generating the applied research ideas that follow. Without the basic understanding of systems, the applied science would not be possible.

Once an idea is generated, a thorough review of existing scientific work is performed to ensure the specific question has not been tested by other researchers. We already know what a wheel is; there is no sense in reinventing it!

Finding the Resources

Specific resources are needed to conduct research projects: labor, supplies, facilities and other associated costs need to be covered. Whether we like it or not, funding for research projects is a critical step in determining the direction of any research program. At my desk, I have a drawer dedicated to research and Extension ideas. If I were to pursue each idea in that particular drawer actively (and not develop any additional ideas), I either would need an entire career to finish the projects successfully or I would need a very large staff of individuals working toward that end.

Therefore, only projects that are able to attract sufficient resources are likely to be conducted. Resources often are obtained through federal, state, commodity and industry grants funds; donation of supplies and expertise from industry partners; limited internal funds; or a combination of the aforementioned.

Understanding which agencies or groups fund what types of research can point sceintists and producers in a general direction to seek funding. However, some projects of significant merit simply are not able to attract the type of resources required to pursue specific research objectives.

Conducting the Project

Once resources are obtained, several items need to be secured before the research effort can begin. Graduate students are often critical to not only the successful completion of the research effort but also to the continued excellence of future research, industry, producer and political entities. Graduate students manage the research projects under the direction of the scientists involved and subsequently gain a true understanding of the research process, interpretation of the work of others and application of sound science-based principles in their decision-making process. Identifying and selecting high-quality graduate students can impact the success of a research effort positively.

The next step is an internal approval process. At NDSU, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) reviews all proposed research projects involving animals to ensure appropriate use and number of animal research subjects. Alternatively, if the research involves human subjects, such as a producer survey, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) must approve all procedures. The project can begin only after IACUC or IRB approval.

At this point, animals are allowed to be utilized for research. Depending on the project, the actual animal component could range from being somewhat limited to quite substantial. Many measurements, samples and tissues (feed, feces, urine, blood, reproductive outcomes, etc.) may be collected during the trial, and many more (carcass characteristics, meat and tissue samples, calving rates, etc.) may be collected as animals complete the trial. Regardless of what samples are collected, a component of laboratory work likely is necessary to classify and quantify the project outcomes appropriately.

Analyzing the Results

After the cattle weights have been recorded, the numbers have been generated in the lab and the necessary calculations have been made, the time has come to analyze the resultant data. The process of statistical analysis allows us to establish a degree of confidence in our conclusions. Simply averaging numbers and reporting these averages to producers or other scientists is a dangerous game. The differences observed in our projects may be due to chance, and proper analysis allows us to assess this possibility. We all observe natural variation in groups of cattle; any individual can be heavier, gain faster, eat more and have a bigger ribeye area with more fat compared with the next. Statistical analysis is the process of determining whether numerical differences are due to treatments applied or to natural variation.

If a result is “statistically significant at a level of P < 0.05,” this should be interpreted as the probability is less than 5 percent that the conclusion being drawn is incorrect.

Sharing Your Results

Research does little good if results are not shared. This sharing can take place through several arenas. Part of the duties in my position involves sharing research results with producer audiences. Material is presented at Extension meetings and workshops throughout the state, in news releases, in “The Research Corner” column of this newsletter and through the NDSU Beef Research Report, which will be released later this summer.

Another critical venue for sharing research results is meetings of scientists and industry personnel, such as the recent meeting in Des Moines. In addition to learning about new research, this type of meeting is critical in the development of graduate students. Preparation for and presentation of research results in this forum of open interaction and questioning ensure that our future scientists and leaders in agricultural industries have the opportunity to develop the ability to explain their work to others and understand how their research fits into a much bigger picture.

Although the process is largely unseen for those outside of academia, the culmination of a sound research effort is the publication of results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Journal articles that withstand the rigors of the review process are the ultimate testament to the scientific quality of any research effort.

Once published in a peer-reviewed journal, project results are solidified, and others can evaluate and reference the work as they develop new ideas and projects. These journals also serve as a venue for future scientists to review past results and not “reinvent the wheel.”

Many times, discussions with producers and scientists regarding results of a project lead directly to more researchable questions. These questions serve as
a solid foundation to begin the process all over again. I sincerely hope we are asking the right questions, that our research is attaining relevant results and we truly are helping the cattle producers of North Dakota and beyond!

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