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Veterinary Services
Veterinary field expertise: using knowledge gained on the job
  1. A. Proctor, BA, PhD1,
  2. P. Lowe, OBE, AcSS1,
  3. J. Phillipson, BSc, MPhil1 and
  4. A. Donaldson, BSc, MSc, PhD2
  1. Centre for Rural Economy, School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU
  2. School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Claremont Tower, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU
  1. e-mail: amy.proctor{at}

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Farm veterinarians are part of the knowledge-based economy in which professionals earn their livelihood by selling their expertise directly to clients. They face complex and ever-changing calls on this expertise. How do they keep their knowledge of livestock health and production up to date in practice?

ACCORDING to the standard formulation of knowledge transfer, ‘field professionals’ such as veterinary surgeons act as intermediaries bringing science to the farm. Undoubtedly they do this, but findings from our research into the role of field advisers in knowledge sharing in the UK show that, in addition, vets actively broker different types of knowledge apart from formal science, and also generate new knowledge themselves. Does the profession appreciate this brokering role sufficiently? And should greater attention be paid to the knowledge generated ‘on the job’?

As part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project entitled ‘Science in the Field’, we interviewed and shadowed field advisers (vets, ecologists and land agents), their professional associations and land managers. Our interviews with the field professionals revealed the complexity of their knowledge sources. Professional associations were the most important source, through programmed CPD training, websites, publications and meetings of specialist divisions. Vets also updated their knowledge through other channels, including the internet, books, journals, magazines and circulars. These extraprofessional sources tended to relate as much to regulatory knowledge (such as policy or guidance documents) as to scientific knowledge.

Working vets complained that they lacked time to refresh their scientific knowledge. They considered that most scientific output was not relevant or applicable to what they did. They expressed concerns about the shift in public funding away from applied work towards ‘blue-sky’ research. Some complained that published science was inaccessible, and most expected their professional organisations to filter out and synthesise information about scientific developments relevant to their work. When they encountered an unfamiliar problem that they could not resolve by consulting immediate colleagues, they were as likely to seek advice from personal contacts in veterinary colleges, laboratories or pharmaceutical companies as to consult the scientific literature.

Farmers look to vets to help them understand complex messages – and vets can learn a lot from their clients as well

Learning in the field

Our findings on the formal knowledge sources of vets confirm those of Wales (2000), whose study explored how vets seek and use information. But what our work also reveals is the significance of field-generated knowledge, gleaned on the job (Fig 1). Once in practice, vets learn by doing, and thereby build up their own experiential and experimental knowledge. These findings have led us to think about ‘the field’ as a space for knowledge production, where field-based experts are not only engaged in knowledge transfer, but also take an active role in translating and creating knowledge.

Fig 1

Basis of veterinarians' field expertise

Field professionals develop experiential knowledge through observation of what works and does not work, learning from mistakes, and sharing best practice. This knowledge is derived from application, and developed through replication and multiple adaptations, case by case. This process is seen by practitioners as essential to the formation and renewal of field expertise: ‘I would say practical experience is massive, a huge percentage, and especially in the farm field [where] I would say it's over 90 per cent of it, and the other sort of 6 to 7 per cent is what you get from university and books.’ (Practising vet) ‘Your progression is [down to] experience; it's cases and doing things for the second, third, fourth time – seeing things.’ (Practising vet)

Field knowledge is not simply self-generated; it derives from interactions with others. Field professionals emphasise the importance of learning from colleagues' experience via formal mentoring or through informal discussion back at the practice. Also significant is the knowledge obtained from interprofessional working, such as vets working closely with nutritionists, animal housing consultants or farriers. Vets also learn a lot from their clients: ‘It's a two-way discussion because they've got loads of knowledge that you can learn from. I suppose if you're talking purely about mastitis then they're probably not going to give as much as you can give. But things like nutrition and housing … definitely.’ (Practising vet) ‘It's amazing how much you learn … broadening your knowledge of the industry, talking to clients. You can go through the price of grain, the price of fat cattle, the price of store lambs in that 40 minutes of having a cup of tea.’ (Practising vet)

Such combining of knowledge – which might include elements of agronomy, animal husbandry, farm economics, disease ecology and livestock geography – is vital to vets' understanding of the local context into which their technical advice must fit. Experiential knowledge is essentially learning about what works in specific contexts. It is acknowledged by all the field professionals we observed: land agents and ecologists as well as vets.

The vets stand out, however, in distinguishing a different source of field knowledge – practice-based knowledge, generated through deliberate interventions in the field. They recalled instances where they had systematically tried out different approaches in their patch: ‘I did have a case last year where we found a worm that was resistant to wormer in hill sheep, which is really rare. And it got even the serious sheep bods at the research institute quite excited. So I did write that up for a presentation to other vets on a CPD evening … We did each animal with something different and took samples before and after … Everything wasn't absolutely up to the knocker but I got a result, and that ties in with what was going on with the farmer. That farm has now changed its worming strategy. And I was able to have something to present to other sheep vets and it raised a lot of questions.’ (Practising vet)

The vets talked about different forms of experimentation, from formal clinical trials and contributions towards drug company research, to informal investigations that include the fieldwork of testing, observing and monitoring, and even modifying surgical techniques. They often mentioned that there were limits to how far they could go (due to restrictions of drug licences, costs, client's attitude, for example) but viewed this work as valuable in extending their knowledge, testing their skills and solving problems. Vets in the field use their experience and knowledge to develop systematic approaches to individual cases. They are much readier to try things out than other field-based professionals, some of whom expressed anxiety towards the very notion.

‘Well, we don't want to experiment on a client's estate, at a client's expense, so what one has to do is find, effectively, someone that has done it before.’ (Land agent)

Knowledge brokers

Vets act as intermediaries bringing science to the farm. But they are not mere conduits of formal science. They also broker different types of knowledge and generate new field knowledge of their own. As scientifically trained professionals and field-based practitioners, veterinarians derive and renew their expertise from both science and practice. But this unorthodox creativity tends to be regarded with scepticism by veterinary academics and researchers: ‘I know that every single thing that you do in practice is based on research because without that it would be hearsay, it would be hocus pocus.’ (Research director) ‘We're collecting data from veterinarians in the field to analyse, to give us the indications of that disease prevalence, etc. The issue coming back over and over again, for various people who we talked to about this, is that this isn't going to be very valid data, because it has been collected by veterinarians in the field and therefore it will be flawed … It won't be as rigorous … it won't be as robust in terms of categorisation, diagnoses, whatever you want really, because it will have been collected by non-experts.’ (Veterinary school scientist)

Such views sit beside an apparent lack of curiosity in the veterinary schools towards practice, and reinforce a professional demarcation between researchers and practitioners. Many veterinary researchers and academics have had little experience of practice. General practice receives limited coverage in veterinary training. Students' main exposure to everyday veterinary work comes from the requirement for extramural studies.

There is a parallel situation in human medicine. From interviews with Canadian clinicians, Mylopoulos and Scardamalia (2008) conclude that ‘Thus far, innovation in medicine has relied on a knowledge translation model … emphasising the … incorporation of new research into daily practice. This exclusive emphasis has led to the devaluing of ideas generated through the daily innovative practice of healthcare workers for the purpose of practice-based, collaborative knowledge building.’ In small animal medicine, however, the potential seems to be more recognised, leading one commentator to claim that ‘Practice-based clinical research is potentially a colossal resource for the veterinary profession. Much of the best veterinary clinical research has been produced by practitioners’ (Holmes 2009).

How might the authority of veterinary field expertise be improved? The scale of experiential and experimental learning that we uncovered in the field suggests that veterinary schools may need to reconsider the type of skills that vets require. In reflecting on medical training, Mylopoulos and Regehr (2009) make the point that ‘As they progress along the path towards becoming lifelong learners, students must be taught to recognise problem solving not only as a process of applying past knowledge, but also as an opportunity to produce and evolve new knowledge.’ But it is not clear to what extent the veterinary schools see themselves as preparing practical experimentalists, whether in terms of students' self-image or in terms of appropriate skills. Formal CPD provision and requirements do not fully capture the wide range of ways that practising vets keep their expertise up to scratch. Above all, it is important that knowledge transfer strategies that rely on vets as intermediaries actually take into account how they develop and maintain their knowledge.

Tailored advice

Farmers and animal keepers look to vets to absorb complex ambivalent messages and ‘translate’ them into terms they can understand. In conveying advice on animal health and welfare, vets will also take into consideration factors such as biosecurity and the local ecology of disease, as well as the technical capabilities and commercial objectives of the farm business. Thus, they do not simply transfer knowledge from other experts; they combine and repackage information and draw on their own accumulated field expertise in order to tailor the knowledge to the circumstances of the individual farmer. Above all, an experienced vet knows what advice will work on a farm. The Lowe report (2009) recommended that, ‘As the knowledge professionals in animal health, [vets] should be much more actively involved in the design and execution of programmes of research and knowledge management in animal disease and public health.’ Farm animal veterinarians play a pivotal role at the interface of research and practice. In order to facilitate more effective knowledge exchange strategies it is vital that this role is recognised and understood.

This article is the fifth in a series of discussion articles produced for Veterinary Record by a group of social scientists and historians drawn together by Philip Lowe, author of the 2009 report ‘Unlocking potential: a report on veterinary expertise in food animal production’. The articles reflect on some of the challenges for the profession posed in his report and aim to stimulate debate about the wider role of vets in relation to government and society. Previous articles in the series are listed on p 410

‘Science in the Field’, the project referred to in this article, is funded as part of the UK Research Councils' Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) (Award RES-229-25-0025). RELU is a collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, with additional funding from Defra and the Scottish Government.


Other articles in this series

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  • Amy Proctor is a research associate at the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University.

  • Philip Lowe is the Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy at the Centre for Rural Economy and director of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

  • Jeremy Phillipson is principal research associate at the Centre for Rural Economy and assistant director of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

  • Andrew Donaldson is a lecturer in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University.

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