Episode 20: NU institute directors intersect early childhood, water sustainability, national security


The University of Nebraska (NU) has invested in four interdisciplinary Institutes, each focused on areas in which the University and the state of Nebraska have unique strengths. Through these Institutes, researchers and students from the four NU campuses come together with partners to find innovative solutions and opportunities for our state, our nation and our world.

Interestingly, each of the Institutes have a specific relationship and value to offer to rural people and places now and into the future. We welcomed the executive directors of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute and the National Strategic Research Institute to talk with Dr. Connie on this Season 2 finale, asking them to approach their area of expertise through our lenses of future-focused leadership, rural-urban collaboration and high-touch, high-tech. Enjoy!

“When we talk about the future at the Rural Futures Institute, we know we need to have a strengths-based approach that includes an abundance mindset. We know there are challenges, but if we continue to just talk about and focus on those challenges, we’re not going to be able to move forward in a way that provides those solutions and outcomes.”
Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D.
RFI Interim Executive Director & Chief Futurist

Samuel Meisels

Buffett Early Childhood Institute


SAMUEL J. MEISELS, ED.D. Founding Executive Director Buffett Early Childhood Institute

Interview starts at 01:19

Samuel J. Meisels is the founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and holds the Richard D. Holland Presidential Chair in Early Childhood Development as well as appointments at each of the four NU campuses.

One of the nation’s leading authorities on the assessment of young children, Sam has published more than 200 research articles, books, monographs and assessments. He was president of the board of directors of Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad, and is an advisor and consultant for numerous local, state, and national organizations.

Peter McCornick

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute


Peter G. McCornick, Executive Director, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute

Interview starts at 18:46

Peter G. McCornick joined the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute as executive director in August 2016 after previously serving as deputy director general of research at the International Water Management Institute, one of the world’s foremost institutions dedicated to improving management of water and land resources to ensure food security and reduce poverty.

Peter has dedicated his career to improving the understanding of sustainable water resources management. He has led research and development programs on water, agriculture and the environment in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the U.S.

Robert Hinson

National Strategic Research Institute


Robert Hinson, USAF, Lt Gen (Ret), Executive Director, National Strategic Research Institute

Interview starts at 34:17

Lieutenant General (Ret) Robert Hinson serves as the founding executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI), leading and managing Department of Defense research opportunities for the University of Nebraska. NSRI is sponsored by United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and focuses on research that helps combat weapons of mass destruction. It is one of 13 DoD-designated University affiliated centers nationally.

Under Hinson’s leadership, NSRI received more than $61 million and 85 contract awards in its initial contract 2012-2018. The NSRI contract has been renewed with a five-year, $92 million contract with USSTRATCOM, through 2023.

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild and I’m really excited today to have Dr. Sam Meisels on with us. Dr. Meisels, is the founding Executive Director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and also holds the Richard D. Holland Presidential Chair in Early Childhood Development. Welcome to the podcast, Sam.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Thank you, Connie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Connie: We’re really excited to have you on because not only are you prolific leader, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute is doing prolific work. First, tell our audience a little bit more about who you are.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, I am a transplant to Nebraska. I came here five years ago to start up the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and I live in Omaha.

Dr. Connie: And we’re really excited to have you here in Nebraska, and would love to have you tell us a little bit more about the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. What’s the mission, what’s the vision, and what impact are you working to achieve?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Sure. The Buffett Institute is what is known at the University as what is known as a four-campus institute. The University of Nebraska has campuses at the medical center in Omaha, at UNO and UNL, and of course and UNK. And we have responsibilities across all four of those campuses. Our vision is that Nebraska will be the best place in the nation to be a baby. And our job is to make that happen. So we describe our mission as that of transforming the lives and education of young children, especially those at greatest risk.

Dr. Connie: Now, tell us a little bit, too, about the approach Buffett uses to do this because in a very short time you’ve really been able to make great process in this space and also I’d like for you to tell us not just about your progress but, why people care so much? How does it affect what happens now and into the future? Why do people care?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, this is of course one of the wonderful things about being in the area of early childhood or early childhood development, people care about kids. They care about young children. The people of Nebraska, especially, care about young children. One of the very first things we did was to partner with Gallup to do a statewide survey of attitudes, knowledge, and belief of Nebraskans about early care and education, which is the term we apply to all of those programs that serve young children and families, children between birth and age eight, or really third grade. We were pleased to see that we did get very good response. In fact, Gallup said that proportionally for the number of surveys that were distributed, we had one of the highest return rates on a survey of this kind that they’ve ever had. More than seven thousand people responded to this survey. And they said that they are very supportive of early care and education, that they believe that more has to be done, that quality is suffering in early care and education, that there is not enough of that high quality care, and when it is available high quality care is very expensive. And in the last two or three decades, we’ve learned how important the early years are, the growth of social capital of our ability to be successful citizens and successful in life, we’ve learned that more and more extensively through research. And we’ve also learned about how brain development occurs in great proportion more in early childhood than in any other time of life. So, the importance of these years is something that very few people, if anyone, would dispute. Now the question is, what should we, and can we, do to help young children reach their potential. And that’s what we’re trying to do at the institute. You also ask, Connie what we’re focusing on and how we have had some impact already. When I came I decided that we needed to be very focused or else we wouldn’t accomplish very much. We identified two programs, two kinds of levels of activity that we call signature programs. One has to do with a challenge of closing the achievement gap between children who are coming from homes that are well resourced in terms of experience and education of parents, and in many cases because of the financial resources available, as contrasted to children coming from low-resourced families. So, our goal is to try to close that gap in achievement and in opportunity. That’s one of our signature programs. And the other has to do with the early childhood workforce. So these two areas represent a great deal of the effort and we’re starting to see some real impact as a result.

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Dr. Connie: At the Rural Futures Institute, this is a major challenge for people living in rural communities. I love how Buffett’s really focused yet holistic realizing that we need to be able to have high quality care but access just in general to that care if we want to have vital communities, whether rural or urban. So tell us a little bit about the mono engagement that you are using to really help lift this important issue to the forefront, but then also create action to create a positive future for our state.

Dr. Sam Meisels: With the early childhood workforce area, we’ve convened a commission of more than 40 state leaders, people from many different areas of activity. Some are people in business, some are people in higher education, some are actual providers of care to young children, we have folks in the world of philanthropy, and certainly people from state departments of education and HHS, all of those people coming together on a quarterly basis or more often to help us identify how we can build a workforce here that’s more skilled, more informed, and more diverse than exists right now. How we can increase public awareness and acceptance and demand for high quality, and that will lead to better compensation we hope for early childhood workers and then that will lead to higher qualifications to demand for more people to come here and work. So demand is a big issue for us. We know that in small communities in the State of Nebraska, where there is an absence and there are many that don’t have many early childhood programs, let alone high quality programs, that this could be a key to economic vitality of those small communities. In other words, if a community lacks quality childcare, many people that are childbearing years, many people who are parents of young children, will not want to live there or cannot live there. And, consequently, the efforts of businesses to attract and retain workers becomes very challenging. That’s something we want to learn more about and use that as a lever to bring to our state legislature and to our Executive Branch here in the state to say, we all know this is important to children’s development. We actually see a literal return on investment, but for that return you have to wait until this child becomes older, but an immediate way we can make a difference in communities by having high quality care present for those who want to work there and who want to stay in that community.

Dr. Connie: That’s absolutely right. I mean, just as a family that lives in a rural area ourselves, when we had our first child first thing you do is you try to go find high quality care. And you look around and you’re like wait a second, what are we going to do here? Reports will tell you, even keeping women in the workforce, what you’re competing with is childcare. That’s what you’re competing with. So if we want people gainfully employed, working to their full potential, but also wanting to move, because people aren’t going to move just for a job. They’re trying to put their whole life together and this is an issue that has been a sticking point for so long because it’s not just about is there access, because we didn’t know anyone in that community either. So if we couldn’t find a high quality daycare, and a lot of it then goes to home daycare or completely unlicensed where you’re just basically dropping your child off with somebody who’s home during the day.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Right, what we want to work toward is that childcare shouldn’t be thought of as a transaction. In other words, here’s another words I know I can get enough hours I’ll be able to go to work, but as a relationship, as some place that we know this is a place where our children will thrive. And as a consequence of thriving, we can have piece of mind, it will help us. More than 80% of children age five and younger are in some form of paid childcare in this state. And 62% of women who have infants, mothers of infants are in the workforce. So, these are really very important statistics because some people say well listen, children belong at home with their mom. And for some women, that is the choice they want to make and I’m deeply supportive of that. But for other women, either it’s not the choice because they want to work, it’s very, very important to who they are, or they have to work because they can’t afford to keep their family going the way they need to if they’re not working. Everyone says children are by far the most important element of our word, of our society, and yet we pay on average someone with a B.A. who works in childcare in the State of Nebraska, we pay them a little more than $19,000 per year to work full time. So, the competition there is Wendy’s, and it’s Target, and it’s other thing things that are variable but they don’t do this specialized work that is so important to us.

Dr. Connie: This is an excellent point. Again, how are we going to value this, and I mean really value it, so that people are able to use their talent in that space and really grow a career? So, is it transformation for their career if they’re caring for these children and these children and their families really have long term positive impact? And again, in those rural communities if we’re going to hope to keep people, or even grow those communities, we need that quality care to exist and we need people to be employed at a livable wage that really helps their own family live a quality life if they’re going to work in this space.

Dr. Sam Meisels: That’s exactly right. Now, the financial side of this is very important. It costs more to put an infant in full time child care than it does 18 years later to enroll that child at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Dr. Connie: You know what? I love that point because people aren’t talking about that enough, I know when we had two kids in daycare, it was extremely difficult. I mean, the check you’re writing for that every month is substantial and then you start making those trade-offs and decisions. Is this a high quality enough situation where it’s worth writing the check or do I make a transition? Or does my husband make a transition? I mean, it really does affect all those life choices that you have to make.

Dr. Sam Meisels: It does. And, the private sector, namely mom and dad, as you’re pointing out, has a very, very difficult time covering the cost and sometimes simply cannot cover ] the cost. On the other hand, turning this over to the public sector is a bridge too far, it’s asking too much. We need a mixed source of support for this, but one that recognized that high quality childcare and high quality workers in childcare don’t come cheap. None of that comes cheap. Any more than a high quality third grade teacher, or an eleventh grade physics teacher, anymore than those people come cheap. They shouldn’t, and they don’t. And we have to build a demand in our communities for our state as a whole to take on this issue and look for the sources of this, to redistribute dollars, to look to philanthropy, to look to private sector, to look to the public sector, to make the early years of life, to give it the kind of credit that we give it in words but not sufficiently in deeds.

Dr. Connie: Sam, with that in mind, I’d love for you to put your futurist hat on. Now I just came back, I was on the panel in Paris, at an international women’s summit where we really talked about a lot of these types of issues. How are we going to create the communities and cities and life experiences of the future that help empower women that was the focus of this conference but this is really about empowering many people, employees, children, families, communities themselves. So, how do you see this evolving?

Dr. Sam Meisels: This is the change we need. As we all do, we want this state and this nation to thrive. We want our citizens to thrive. This is a critical step for us to take. Other statistics tell us that more than a quarter, in fact, in the State of Nebraska, some estimates are as high as 40% of children under age five are at risk for problems and failure in school. Now, we cannot afford to have that many children. Bring the number down to 25%. Bring it down to 20% or even lower. We cannot afford to have those many children failing in school. It’s our job to do something about that. It no longer makes sense, well, those kids just need to study harder and go out and get a job. They are at a disadvantage because of the kind of experiences they have early on in life. Experiences in preschool, in Kindergarten, and all the way through, this is our responsibility and this will change our lives if we make a commitment of that kind.

Dr. Connie: I love your passion around this but also, you’ve really advanced the understanding and science around this through your leadership and scholarship and creativity. So I’d love you to also tell the listeners a little bit about your leadership style. How are you leading this charge? What does it take to do this type of work?

Dr. Sam Meisels: Well, I’m very fortunate that I have wonderful people who are working with me. And of course, I came here and I was employee number one, so that gave me this great opportunity to search and find wonderful people to join with me. And part of my job description, at least in my head is, to provide a vision and a direction. My job is to help them see that there’s another step to take and it’s something that would be gratifying in the extreme for them and for all of us. So, I think that that is a big part of my leadership style. I’m the type of person who doesn’t really think about the kind of leader in a typical typology, I don’t even know what that is. I just do the best I can. I also try to lead by example and by modeling. I’m a person who lives and breathes this all day long and shares it with as many people as I can. It’s very important to us here as a university, part of the university, that our work reflect the best knowledge available and be supported by research and by evidence.

Dr. Connie: And Sam, on that note, what words of wisdom would you like to leave our audience with today.

Dr. Sam Meisels: Words of wisdom are hard to come by.


Dr. Sam Meisels: I would say, I’ll give you my words of wisdom. My words of wisdom is that there’s nothing more important we can do than care for our children in the best ways that we know how. And when we’re not doing that, we are not doing, I think what we’re here to do in this world. And we have a long way to go.

Dr. Connie: Well thank you, I think those are amazing words of wisdom, and I’ll be anxious to get that feedback from our audience because I know this is going to be a hot topic for them.

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Dr. Connie: Joining me today is Dr. Peter McCornick, Executive Director of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. Welcome to the podcast, Peter. Thank you Connie, glad to be here. Water is a big issue here in Nebraska but also around the world. So tell us a little bit more about the institute. What’s its purpose, what’s its mission, what’s it doing

Dr. Peter McCornick: Well, the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute was established with a mission of achieving a water and food secure world. It’s a very bold ambition, but I think it was really based on a foundation of the university and of the state more widely and addressing this sort of challenges and how this could be better addressed in the state, but also really shared with nationally and internationally. So the institute partners with the university, partners with the natural resource districts here in the state and works with different countries and different states in the United States to look at what are the solutions, what are the things that we can learn from the rasp, what are the things that we can learn from elsewhere, and how can we really address something that’s really challenging. Agriculture and water is really requires local solutions. So how do we transfer that knowledge from one context to the next and the institute is really in the middle of that, trying to bring the different departments together, trying to focus on where we can actually come up with viable solutions and share such ideas.

Dr. Connie: Well, and water can be a challenging issue. It’s either lack of it, there’s the quantity aspect, but also the quality aspect of it. But also, nothing can live without water. So I think that the work that you do is so critically important in terms of how are we going to continue to feed a growing population and make sure that our water resources are a key part of that. But also, that there’s enough to make this happen.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Yes, and often the water quantity and water quality are very closely linked. I mean, where there’s water scarcity or we may have a lot of water, but if it’s contaminated either naturally or man-made, that means we can’t use it the way we’d like to use it so it becomes much more difficult to find the water that’s the best that we want to use for either human consumption or growing crops or for our ecosystems.

Dr. Connie: Well, I know you’ve had a very robust career. You’ve lived in many different countries and you’ve studied this in so many different places. So tell us a little bit about Dr. Peter McCornick. How did you evolve over time and get to where you are now here in Nebraska?

Dr. Peter McCornick: I’m from, as you can tell from my accent, I’m not quite from Nebraska. I actually grew up in a rural part of Southwest Scotland on a family farm beef, sheep, and dairy in those days, growing some crops. So I learned about agriculture at a very young age. My family are all still, my brothers are all still farmers in that area. I think they’re where too much water was generally the problem, so that certainly wasn’t what got me interested in water, but as I then went off to college and learned about the topics of engineering and agriculture and became interested in water, I also had an interest in working internationally. I went off really looking at in different countries and working in different countries. I came to the United States to do my Masters at Colorado State which was very strong in that area at the time. So, I ended up working on the Overall Aqua for Numa County in Colorado in Overall Aqua for way back there. I developed a strong interest in interdisciplinary efforts, really looking at solutions as an engineer but also social aspects of economics there, the natural resource management. And really, yeah, solutions oriented and subsequently I met my wife in Colorado and we moved around the world, spent about half our time overseas, half our time back in the US. But working in many countries looking at the issues really trying to develop solutions with the ministers, the farmers, the decision makers in those area, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

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Dr. Connie: So tell us a little about your leadership approach to making things happen in this space when you have a lot of competing interest, a lot of different ideas, what does that look like?

Dr. Peter McCornick: Yeah, I think that’s probably the biggest challenges we end up with this very complex environment we’re working around water and agriculture and different opinions, but how do you come up with solutions that people can agree on, but are also clearly communicated so that we can move forward and address the issues at hand? And I think I’ve always been quite mission focused. I’ve been curious, but quite passionate and maybe rather oddly so, but very passionate about this space. I think this is another part of that is really emphasizing outcomes. I think one of the fortunate things about working with different stakeholders, when you’re working with the farmers you’re in the field, you’re dealing with all the investments they’ve made and they’re not interested in the theory of what you’re doing, they’re interested in what is the practical application of this and does it actually help them manage what is going on? And this is true of a farmer here, true of a farmer elsewhere in the world. They’re really looking at how can they use the knowledge we have to actually apply in their situation. But, then I’d come back to always thinking what my father would say in terms of a specialist coming in from outside trying to give me advice that really trying to understand them and get them on board. So, I think this is part of my leadership style would be, and I probably didn’t realize this early on, but is really listen and appreciate the people you’re working with. I think relationships and how you deal with people and how you build that, that’s absolutely critical. I think the tourniquet tied up in the sort of, maybe the panic of the moment and to forget really that you really have to build those relationships and those connections and the credibility. I’ve worked in many different settings in many different cultures and how do you balance all those things out and still manage to achieve the outcomes you’re trying to do? Sometimes in adjusting the outcomes we find out that what we’re trying to do isn’t the right answer and other times it is trying to convince them and take some ideas forward that perhaps aren’t as popular as some of the people involved, but trying to bring them around and get them to understand. I’ve seen those play out in different parts of the world. Learning to delegate, not just delegate the responsibility but delegate the authority to people; giving them the room to actually get on with what they need to do. Many of the people you’re working with are very skilled at what they do. They have many insights that you don’t have and giving them the authority and the room to really address the issue at hand.

Dr. Connie: I think leaders are comfortable delegating responsibility, but for true innovation to happen, we really need to delegate that authority as well, right? I mean, really empower people, make sure you’re surrounded with good people and you have great people on the team. But, if they can’t leverage their talents and resources and grow as leaders themselves, it’s really hard to advance an organization forward in this day and age of continuous change and the need for innovation.

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Dr. Connie: As a leader, especially in an area like water, you have a lot going on and a lot on your plate all the time. So delegation is a part of that. You also have to keep yourself fresh. So tell us a little bit about what you like to do for fun.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I have lots of interests, and it’s a challenge when you move regularly. I think my wife and I have lived in about 25 houses since we’ve been married, and that’s in many countries. So your hobbies and interests sort of have to morph a little as you move because you can’t necessarily do things that you’d like to do. I’m a keen motorcyclist. Unfortunately, in Nebraska we have about five months where that’s not really a great area of interest. But, I very much keep up with current affairs. I’ve become quite keen on history and both my intent is something I intend to look into in the context I’m living in so, whether it’s Scotland or Sri Lanka, or now I’m quite interested in Nebraska. People above me really looking at the Oregon Trail and out of the state, and understanding more about the state, and that’s an area where I draw a lot of relaxation, shall we say, and diversion from my work. But they all kind of interrelated in the end. And my family, I’m also quite keen on my spaniels and my dogs.

Dr. Connie: That’s good, me too, we share that definitely. I tell you it’s amazing how important dogs have become in our lives.


Dr. Peter McCornick: They’re essential. We’ve moved them around the world with us.

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Dr. Connie: One question I’m curious about we get asked this a lot at the Rural Futures Institute too, why Water for Food, a global institute around this issue, in a place like Nebraska.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else to be honest. I mean, that’s the first time I’ve actually answered that question this way because I have been asked this question, and I do think it requires the leadership at university level, but at the state level, the people who have supported the Daugherty Foundation, the presence of the university here, the previous president, and the new president, really seeing this as important.I think Nebraska very early on in the 70’s realized the importance of managing the ground water and established the National Resource District. Agriculture has clearly been an important part of the culture in the state since its founding, and I think that translates into leadership and support at the highest level in the state, but even across different political differences that this is seen as the priority. I was asked recently in a conference how this could be emulated. I think it’s realizing the state or the entity of the area you’re in really needs to put agriculture very central to the issues on water. If you don’t do that it’s very difficult to emulate what Nebraska’s done. So I do think it’s Nebraska playing on its strengths, Nebraska playing on what has been the investment in these sectors, and I think there’s a lot the world can learn from Nebraska. But again, not prescriptions to go out and solve the world’s problems, but to understand what is important to get these things to align and to address the challenges and to position food with less water.

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Dr. Connie: I’d love for you to put your futurist hat on Peter, and tell our audience how you see the area of water for food evolving into the future.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Research just demonstrates how water and agriculture, the management over the last thirty, forty years, has been really quite ground-breaking in producing good results that again, there are challenges. We talked about water quality earlier. To court one of my faculty fellows theories, basically the future is bright on the sort of technology and these areas promise a lot. There’s many things we can be looking at. But, certainly what we’re seeing is use of water, use of crops, the livestock, the way that food is produced here, I think these are areas where we can build on what has been done so far and certainly continue to evolve those areas in the future.

Dr. Connie: I think it’s an important mindset to have, right? So when we talk about the future at the Rural Futures Institute, realizing that we need to have a strengths-based approach that includes an abundance mindset. We know there are challenges. But if we continue to just talk about and focus on those challenges, we’re not going to be able to move forward that provides those solutions and outcomes that you were talking about earlier.

Dr. Peter McCornick: I’m an optimist. Many other parts of the world would be quite envious of the assets that we have here in Nebraska. So I think there are the things to focus on. I do think technologies and ideas that there’s more to do in that space. I was recently in discussions with partners around the agriculture technology and the challenges in changing agriculture technology, that it’s an area that’s been difficult for external actors to really get involved. We’re now seeing many other sectors, in terms of mainly the high-tech sectors beginning to look at agriculture much more seriously in how they can get involved in developing the technologies and making them more available. There’s big challenges there in making sure the technologies are what the farmers or the users need. And really okay in this conversation understanding what agriculture is all about and engaging with agriculture and looking for the understanding the issue before you develop a solution. I think is an important part of it. The other thing is we develop a lot of technologies that are good ideas, but they’re not actually taken up by the users the way we expect, and I think there it’s not just the technology we need to be focusing on going forward, it’s really the social-science, the behavior. Really focusing on why these things aren’t happening and asking the tough questions, and realizing that maybe the technology just wasn’t destined to be used the way that the original people thinking that idea up, there’s maybe another solution we need to be looking at that may not be less technological but maybe along the lines of institutional, like the National Resource Districts and organizations like that, so.

Dr. Connie: I love this interaction between human use and the social piece. But in the realization that not technology alone is going to solve things. People has to be willing to use it. It has to fit within their system. Do you have an example that you could share around that?

Dr. Peter McCornick: Well, right now we have these digital support systems that can be made accessible to farmers or to decision makers from the satellite imagery, from the use of drones, although again that’s an area we really need to sort out some of the regulations and so forth around it, and we certainly want to address all the issues that we imagine they might address. But it’s really that information and making that information accessible. So, we have a lot of data in Nebraska as with farmers, with National Resources Districts, but there’s also a lot of sensitivities around the data. And how do we access that? So it really, the innovation and the technology is, we have a lot of this available, but how do you really tease that out and what is really available and who can use it? But then put it in a form that really integrates into the agricultural system. We have some of that and we have a plethora of apps being developed for phones. But, most farmers or most users don’t have time to interpret those multiple apps. So really bringing that together. How do we integrate that technology?

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Dr. Connie: I’d love for you to share some words of wisdom with our audience.

Dr. Peter McCornick: Words of wisdom, never share words of wisdom. That’s one word of wisdom.


Dr. Peter McCornick: I think in the end, it’s going to come down to people and how people work together. But also how we get the next generation engaged in these areas. That’s a term that’s been picked up in Africa by the President of the African Development Bank that’s I think is hugely important in making agriculture cool. Making that the roles in agriculture and the water creating the opportunities to attract the younger leadership and the younger leaders into these areas. I think it is an area it is complicated. It does require deep, but general, understanding of a number of topics. That’s becoming quite difficult in this day and age to really, I think the information’s there, but I think you need to have the curiosity an the opportunity to explore that. So in the end, I think the words of wisdom is probably invest in the next generation.

Dr.Connie: I love it. Invest in the next generation and make agriculture cool!

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Bob Henson: I’m Bob Henson, I’m the Executive Director for the National Strategic Research Institute. I just happened to be retired General Officer, so I’ve been with the University since 2012, now.

Dr. Connie: I just want to thank you for your service and all that you do. I don’t even know how much gratitude I can even extend to somebody like you whose made a career out of service but also has helped so many do that and protect our freedom, so thank you.

Bob Henson: Oh thank you, very much. So patriotic that you start talking about service and those kind of things, I tear up. My wife accuses me of getting teary-eyed at KMart openings if there’s a patriotic theme associated with it.


Dr. Connie: That’s okay, I’m actually kinda teared up right now.


Dr. Connie: So that’s awesome.

Bob Henson: That’s just fine.

Dr. Connie: Well, we’d like to talk a little bit about NSRI. We’ll use that term throughout our interview. This is the National Strategic Research Institute, which is a sister institute to the Rural Futures Institute. And I know when I met you I could tell right away that you were a total Futurist because of the way you were talking. And amazing work of NSRI. Could you tell us a little bit more, Bob, about what the purpose of NSRI and the mission?

Bob Henson: NSRI was started in 2012 through the University of Nebraska’s conversation with the US Strategic Command. There was a significant responsibility picked up by Start Com that was focusing on combating weapons of mass destruction which categorizes chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and in that regard here, pandemics and or threats like that that can be weaponized. So, the university put in a proposal to take on the responsibility as a university-affiliated research center, the basic fundamental levels of research that support the Department of Defense across those mission domains through the work that we’ve done with the university it’s really concentrating on research that supports various aspects of preventing and or finding ways of identifying those threats before they become a problem. And so, we’ve undertaken considerable amount of research in the past six years. We’ve actually had over 25 different sponsoring agencies with now in the neighborhood of 83 task order contracts working on a variety of research projects that go from infectious disease all the way to sensor technologies and how UAV’s and those kind of things can be used in the future.

Dr. Connie: That’s an extremely broad scope.There’s so many physical aspects to the UAV’s, etc. weapons of mass destruction. But also, the cyber security.

Bob Henson: Cyber is pretty daunting when you look at the overall effects that it can generate and things that it can do to our society and day-to-day practical term because everybody relies on some form of technologies these days that through the phones or through communications devices or through satellite connections, and those kinds of things. And all of those combine sort of at the front end of the threat spectrum when you start dealing with things that currently you have to think about given that technologies have so advanced that these become areas of concern across the board. And I think those are the kinds of things that the Department of Defense and other agencies research we do is not just for the Department of Defense. That largely focused on the whole threat spectrum that might begin with a cyber type attack.

Dr. Connie: Well, I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on, between your military service and now serving as the Executive Director at NSRI, how do you see this whole evolution happening into the future with regard to cyber security and technology in particular?

Bob Henson: We’ve had some projects working with some agencies with regard to port security. If you look at the ports of the United States, and the amount of goods that are brought in through shipping or airlines or those kinds of things, we’ve taken on some research to really look at the gaps and the vulnerabilities associated with how technology manage the navigation into those ports and then the distribution of goods. The other thing that we’ve been involved in from a cyber perspective is really looking at how the new commands and all of the commands and agencies rely on a variety of communications, technologies, and satellite coverage and navigation systems to execute missions and or the economy and any number of things. So, my futuristic look I would suggest just we have to think about how we protect and how we operate in times of denial when those services are denied to the average American and what that ripple effect then would constitute, and how it would affect the troops that are deployed, their families that are located at home, the communities that we operate in, the day-to-day banking, the day-to-date uses that we use for different kinds of things, and cyber on the front end really people take it for granted. But, as we look to the future, it’s going to become more and more prevalent if you think about driverless cars and airplanes and a number of things that are on the horizon and how comfortable and confident would you be in a driverless car knowing that somebody could penetrate the system and take control of that vehicle. But, technology’s great. We just have to think more about the consequences of technology being denied in some of those circumstances.

Dr. Connie: I think this is such a critical conversation for so many different reasons because technology is sort of the big topic for a lot of futurists. However, I mean, there’s this humanity part around technology as well. But I think, is it being talked about enough?

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Dr. Connie: Now you’ve had a pretty robust career in terms of serving as a lieutenant general, I understand you’re now retired, but that military career has been prolific and now, you now, being at the university. So tell us a little bit about your personal leadership style as it relates to the work you’ve done and that you’re doing now.

Bob Henson: My leadership style. Boy, that’s another tough question.


Bob Henson: I served 33 years on active duty. I started out as a young listed airman in the Air Force in the Vietnam era. I grew up flying airplanes. After that, I got into space command and then various assignments throughout my career. A lot of my career in my latter years from about 1985 to when I retired in 2012 are always command level opportunities, and so, in those positions you learn to one, rely on people. You have to trust and rely on people who are standing beside you and behind you and supporting you and obviously guiding you. I think it’s a matter of building trust and creating relationships with your colleagues and comrades and arms that makes a difference now. Through my years I’ve really trusted people. I think you have to trust that when you train people to do a job that they’re going to execute that job and you trust them to do that job until the point they fail to do what you’ve asked them to do or trained them to do. I think in the same light, if you go into any kind of operation or any kind of business where you’re trying to micromanage everything, you are fraught with danger and failure. And my style is building trust in people I hire, building investment in people who share in the goals that you’ve established and want to succeed. They want to make it grow. And I think that’s where NSRI has been very successful. I don’t control anybody. I rely on researchers and faculty members within the University. I rely on people that I’ve hired within my staff to serve on the behest of the university and our sponsors and the like. It requires that level of trust and involvement and expectations that people will do more than you ask of them if you give them the tools and the responsibility and accountability for doing it. And, I honestly believe that. I’ve grown up believing that, and I tried to use that as a segway for everything I do, even at the point of where I’m leveraging people. You have to rely on them to do the job because you can’t do it yourself.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, that’s just brilliant. And, I think what I really respect is that you have this amazing presence, but you’re also so personable and you really care about people. And I think that comes through in just your discussion and philosophy around leadership. You trust people and you understand they’re going to do more than you ask if you have that trust and you give them the tools. But you really empower people to do their jobs and use their talent. And we need more leaders to do that. Well, if I turn the question around and ask you, I’m not sure that our answers would be very different.

Bob Henson: Well thank you, I appreciate that.

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Dr. Connie: I think our listeners really enjoy hearing a little more about your personal philosophy in life. I mean, here you are Executive Director of NSRI, and you see a lot, you hear a lot. You’re thinking about things so many of us take for granted every day and seeing the inside of it but also the future of things like national security, cyber security, weapons of mass destruction, even working with the med center on Ebola. So what do you do for fun? I mean, what does a guy like you do for fun? What brings joy to your life when you’re thinking about these types of things all day long?

Bob Henson: Well, I have a wife who keeps me humble and honest. I have seven grandchildren that keep me going and two of them are here locally, and they’re two little girls that keep you going. So, we spend a lot of time with them. I’m a farmer’s kid, I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, my dad sort of instilled a work ethic that I even hold today. So, I find myself more of a hands-on kind of person that likes to get things done with my hands, and so I do woodworking. I don’t think there’s, well, I know there are limits on what I can and can’t do. But, I often fail to recognize those things that I can’t do very much


Bob Henson: But I’m willing to give it a try.

Dr. Connie: Knowing that you’re from a rural community, so many of our military come from rural communities. That’s one of the things that we’ve talked a little bit about at the Rural Futures Institute. When people ask about why rural, why now, why should we care about rural somebody who comes from a rural community and has that background, what would you say to that?

Bob Henson: I really appreciated the years that I spent as a young lad growing up on a farm in Tennessee. I spent considerable hours sitting on the street corner selling watermelons and cantaloupes.


Dr. Connie: Okay, things I didn’t know about you. You just seem cooler by the second. But, I do agree with you that a lot of the foundation of our country is built around rural communities. And, the cities and the life in the cities, they’ve never slowed down. They continue to fast pace. But when you start looking at the morals of the country and the foundation of this country, you look at what’s happening in the rural communities and all the people that you talk about service of the country, people in rural environments that are really the foundation of this country. And, having grown up in a rural community, I consider it one of the very solid foundations of the country. At the Rural Futures Institute, one of the conversations we’ve really been focused on is the rural-urban collaboration, and I just returned from a 10-day excursion in Japan where we had a real immersive experience in rural areas there because they’re national government has declared rural development and redevelopment as a national priority. They see the struggles that can happen when they have too many people in one location. And so they’re really trying to figure out, okay, what is it look like so that Tokyo doesn’t become so mega urbanized that if something happens in Tokyo, most of our population is wiped out. And in one of the areas that we visited, they’ve developed these rice contracts where they’re encouraging people from more urban areas to buy rice from the rural areas, but also as herb for the subscriptions. So if there would be a tsunami or an earthquake, they could actually go to those rural areas and have a place to live in major disaster. And I thought that was a really unique and creative way to help connect people in rural and urban. Could you see any value to something like that here?

Bob Henson: There seems to be this notion that the price of doing work on a farm or on a ranch or those kind of things is becoming less attractive because of economy and the products we sell and those kind of things as a very volatile market scale. I think the connections between rural and certainly the city environments that we live in these days, there needs to be a good connection, a good understanding of that and great benefit that a rural community actually provides to the larger population if you will. In some ways we’re losing that connection to the real bread basket of this country and what constitutes the people that keep us fed and keep the nation and our international relations sort of at the forefront of things. So, I don’t know if I answered your question, but I just find that there needs to be an increased appreciation of the contributions of those that actually do hard manual labor in the fields of this country.

Dr.Connie: No, I really appreciate that and you actually, as usual, give me more to think about in terms of how to help people understand that rural connection in their own life even if they don’t live there. Part of our research has involved the use of UAVs. And you look at GPS navigation systems from space these days and how that has contributed to the increased production of farm products and necessities and all kinds of things, that I think rural people in this country are leveraging technologies in ways that have never been leveraged before and we are getting more productivity out of that. But with that, comes a price. We’re expanding neighborhoods that take out farmlands, we grow things on the sides of hills that in my day you would hardly climate, much less plant something on it. And, I think, the things that the rural communities are finding these days are that with technology they can increase productivity if they’re encouraged by the markets that continue to support them. It is not an inexpensive proposition to be in the rural communities these days if that’s what you’re using as a source of livelihood and income. I know most of the people on our podcast should know what a UAV is if they’re listening to something like the Rural Futures Podcast, but for those that may not or it may be new, they may just be tuning in, could you explain a little bit more about the unmanned aerial vehicles?

Bob Henson: Unmanned aerial vehicles have a rather broad perspective. I think in the military they could be used for gaining the high ground if you will, looking at what’s over the hill or the horizon, what’s out in front of you, being able to collect intelligence, being able to collect information that’s useful in planning the campaigns and those kind of things. It is also a way of expanding the footprint of an operation without having to expand the number of personnel you have to commit to that. In other environments though, if you look at the uses of UAV’s in the agricultural community, it’s collecting soil samples on how productive a piece of farmland or land could be, collecting samples on water in various areas. I think there’s any number of ways that unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in a rural kind of setting. In some of the cases where there’s some ideas that unmanned aerial vehicles would deliver packages to your doorstep. There’s any number of new things that UAV’s will be able to do. It has its downsides. Obviously there are a lot of people who resent the idea that you have an unmanned aerial vehicle with a camera or a projector of some sort and they’re collecting information and invading your privacy. Again, wave of the future.

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Dr. Connie: What are some parting words of wisdom that you’ve like to leave our listeners with.

Bob Henson: Well first of all, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. I find it refreshing to have this conversation with you. I find that opportunities to collaborate with you and other people like you and really take advantage of things that you do and others are doing along this line, being associated with the university, being associated with the people that are in the Nebraska communities and the like, is underpinning I think of what this country’s all about.