People Matter: Why the Human Factor Is Essential for Successful Integrated Pest Management Programs
By David Coyle, Ph.D., and Ryan Gott, Ph.D.
Integrated pest management (IPM), used for decades worldwide, is critical to the control of pests in myriad systems, including traditional crops, natural resources, horticulture, and urban systems (e.g., schools). IPM traditionally consists of iterations of scouting for pests, managing them, and recording and evaluating the results. Management tactics can be chemical, mechanical, cultural, biological, physical, or genetic in nature and are used in concert so as not to rely on a single control strategy. Scientifically, IPM is very effective. However, IPM is more than just scouting, recording, and treating pest issues.
Each action in IPM is done by a person. The success of each action depends on the physical ability, knowledge, perceptions, and behaviors of the actor. These are complicated factors incorporating concepts from psychology, sociology, communication, and education. While there are many important aspects to consider, here we tackle only communication.
The Road to Becoming an IPM Educator
The implementation of an IPM program relies in part on the ability of an expert (we’ll call them an IPM educator) to teach or help someone else (we’ll call them an IPM practitioner) to get the program up and running. Seems simple in concept, but in reality many folks who find themselves as IPM educators have not had much, if any, formal training on informally communicating with or educating people. This is the subject of a paper we recently published in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management: the importance of people in IPM.
The idea of human communication as an important aspect of IPM was highlighted in a past Entomology Today post and recently in another Journal of Integrated Pest Management paper by Surendra Dara. In that paper, Dara advocated for “communication” being one of the main factors influencing IPM program efficacy. We fully agree, and take it a step further in identifying and acknowledging deficiencies in how IPM educators are trained. Many follow the typical graduate school path with a lot of education in entomology or pest management but very little in how to deal or work with people (i.e., the IPM practitioners). Certainly, this is not a blanket statement, as each of us takes a different path to becoming an IPM educator. And, to further support this idea, we interviewed several early-career entomological colleagues to find out about their experiences as IPM educators.
In general, the current IPM educators we interviewed lacked experience or training in non-academic, face-to-face communication, especially with IPM practitioners or the general public. Sure, many gave an outreach talk or two, but few had what could be classified as formal training. That said, about half reported feeling adequately prepared for their current IPM educator job in terms of training; most of those who felt prepared received on-the-job training during grad school or in another job post-graduate school. Most respondents said it took 1-2 years to feel comfortable with their interpersonal communication skills, and, unfortunately, much of this was learned on the job (which, at times, resulted in some uncomfortable learning experiences).
Some of the biggest challenges include time management (we know—this isn’t unique to IPM educators!) and simply gaining the trust of local farmers and land managers. Sexism is still prevalent in parts of our country, and this is best summed up by a quote from one of the people we interviewed (partially redacted for privacy): “Even after two years of being in this position, I still have a grower that refuses to let me set foot on his farm because I’m not from [that state], [am] a relatively ‘young’ female, and wasn’t raised growing [commodity].”
Opportunities to Collaborate and Learn
Communication is so important to science as a whole and especially to those aspects that deal directly with people. We’re not advocating for an entirely new curriculum that emphasizes communication—we’re just advocating for opportunities to improve instruction capabilities of IPM educators. Improved communication will likely lead to more and better IPM programs, which will benefit all of us. This exploration should continue with other human aspects of IPM in collaboration with colleagues in psychology, sociology, and other relevant fields. These cross-disciplinary collaborations will reveal new insights and push IPM to greater and greater heights.
Journal of Integrated Pest Management
David Coyle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation at Clemson University, and Ryan Gott, Ph.D., is the associate director of integrated pest management at Phipps Conservatory. Twitter: @drdavecoyle and @entemnein. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.