Daniel Robison is the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. Robison came to Iowa State earlier this year after a stint as dean of the College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design at the University of West Virginia.
He succeeded Wendy Wintersteen, the longtime ag dean who rose to become president of the university.
IFT: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and go to school?
ROBISON: I grew up in central New Jersey in the shadow of Rutgers University. My father started his career as an agronomist and I was always very interested in the natural world. I was in the Boy Scouts and spent a lot of time outside.
After high school I went to Syracuse to study forestry and I really fell in love with the discipline. I earned my master’s in silviculture and forest influences and later did some research in northern Maine. I also worked at Syracuse, then I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and earned a Ph.D. in entomology. I was looking at insects and bugs on trees. My doctorate was on the forest tic caterpillar.
I lived for two years in Ivory Coast in Africa. Then I came back to Syracuse before spending 16 years at North Carolina State. I held several positions there and eventually became the dean at West Virginia in 2012.
IFT: What led you to make the change from West Virginia to Iowa State?
ROBISON: I think as a professional I was always looking at how I could make a deeper, broader and more positive impact and there is no better place to do that in agriculture than at Iowa State University. I really enjoyed West Virginia, but the ag college there was about half the size of the one at Iowa State.
IFT: Is there anything that has surprised you once you came here?
ROBISON: What has been illuminating to me is just how important agriculture is in the state of Iowa. This is a place where the story is written in agriculture. That’s both really intense and really wonderful.
You have to understand that West Virginia is perhaps 85% forest and 15% agriculture while Iowa is the opposite. The farmers in both states want to make the most of the acres they have. But this is a place where agriculture holds a dominant place in the economy.
Agriculture looks different in different places. North Carolina had a really big swine industry, for example. The egg industry is bigger here. That was new to me. Really, learning about and working with those changes is one of the most fun parts of the job.
IFT: You have lived in different parts of the country and the world. How has that impacted you?
ROBISON: I think it gives you perspective. Once you travel or live in other areas you never view the world the same way again. I think it makes people more empathetic and more willing to consider new technology or approaches.
IFT: Let’s go for the obvious question. What are your goals as the dean?
ROBISON: I think all land grant schools, at their core, are charged with three tasks: teaching, research and extension. We have some real challenges in both agriculture and education. We need to find ways of doing those three things well. Part of the goal of a land grant is to provide education to the masses. It’s a model that’s been admired and adapted all over the world.
IFT: Funding has been a challenge for colleges. There has been controversy regarding the private funding of research. How can you address that situation?
ROBISON: The funding model has changed over the decades. We are probably more vulnerable now than at any time since the World War II era. You just have to go into this with your eyes wide open. If it was all funded with public money… but that’s just not the case. We have to find a way to form partnerships and get the job done.
IFT: There seem to be two competing trends right now. Government and business love to talk about the importance of STEM, but at the same time there seems to be a backlash against science as seen in anti-vaccine campaigns and other items. How do you approach that quandary?
ROBISON: There is a tension there. It’s really disheartening in that we seem to live in an era where skepticism about science is so high. I believe we have something we call the scientific method and we need to stress that. The brilliance of science is that it’s self-correcting. If there is one study that comes up with an incorrect conclusion, the scientific community will test it until the correction is made.
For example, the science is clear that there is climate change, that we do face water quality issues, that you should vaccinate your kids.
We have a great story to tell in science. We just need to do a better job of telling that story.
IFT: You have a unique situation where your predecessor as ag dean is now your boss as university president. And she’s also an entomologist, which is one of your areas of expertise. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
ROBISON: I think it’s great. I had the opportunity to be the dean at another college of agriculture before I came here so we generally knew of each other as professionals. I certainly knew her by reputation and I knew that Iowa State had an extraordinary college of agriculture and life sciences and that Wendy Wintersteen was an extraordinary dean. Because of that I knew that I was coming to a college that was firing on all cylinders.
The president has understood the situation and has been really great to work with. It’s all good. It’s just wind in my sails.