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Dear ASM members,

CotterMy first communication with you last month was not a pleasant one to write and not the way I had hoped to begin my year as ASM President. But budget cuts were necessary, and the news had to be delivered. I am aware that many members would like to know more about ASM’s finances, why budget adjustments are necessary, and the process used to make the adjustments. I’d like to start with a little history.

The ASM was established in 1899 as the Society of American Bacteriologists with the goal of bringing together workers interested in the newly emerging discipline of bacteriology, and the expectation that by working together, these scientists could do more than by working alone. Central to the Society was the development of mechanisms for communicating methods and results. The annual meeting provided a forum for face-to-face communication, and the Journal of Bacteriology, launched in 1917, provided a print format to reach a broader audience. These mechanisms became the ways for bacteriologists in the U.S. and abroad to share their findings, and participation in both activities was robust. 

Over the years, the field grew and expanded to include virology, mycology and parasitology (and hence the name was changed to the American Society for Microbiology in 1960), and more journals were added to reflect the increased breadth and depth of the membership. ASM journals and the annual meeting became so successful that they generated profits, which Society leadership, on behalf of members and using member-approved policies, invested back into the Society in the form of programs that could not generate revenue on their own, but which were deemed important for advancing the field. Examples include educational, career development, and outreach programs, a policy department to educate politicians and funding organizations about microbiology, training and certification programs for clinical microbiologists, small conferences, etc. The synergy possible from working together was being realized! 

As expected, operating expenses to support ASM’s various programs increased proportionately with the revenues generated from journals and meetings, and this model was successful for a long time. But in the late 2000s, submissions to ASM journals and attendance at the large annual meetings began to decline. Consequently, revenues flatlined beginning in 2008 (see graph). Expenses, however, did not decrease. From 2014 to the present, revenues decreased even more, to the point that income was not able to meet operating expenses. Fortunately, ASM invested some of its operating revenues wisely, and the return on these investments provides a cushion (referred to as ‘revenue transfers’ in the graph) that has covered ASM’s losses the last few years. But investment income is, by nature, variable and unpredictable, and ASM’s financial policy is to use investment returns for special one-time expenditures, such as launching a new journal or purchasing a new information management system at headquarters, and for specific programs, such as travel grants and Education fellowships.  Investment income is not intended to be used for balancing the operating budget. Indeed, the financial guidelines approved by ASM’s leadership state that the Society should strive to produce a net surplus of 3 to 5% of its operating budget every year so that reserves are not needed to cover normal operating expenses. Therefore, as it has become apparent that the decrease in revenues from journals and events is not simply a temporary downturn, the Council Policy Committee (ASM’s former governing body) asked at its meeting last fall that the Society find a way to achieve a breakeven operating budget for 2018.

ASM BUdget

A major challenge for ASM in the coming years will be to find new revenue streams. Although our dedicated volunteers and staff are working hard to reinvigorate our journals and meetings, it is clear that we are not going to be able to rely solely on these revenue sources in the future. We must develop new, innovative ways to support our current and future members in a way that meets their needs and is fiscally sustainable. 

In the meantime, we must tighten our belts. ASM’s leadership was faced with the tough job of developing a budget that would allow the Society to live within its means. Looking to the future, we chose to evaluate our programs critically and make strategic changes, rather than simply implementing across-the-board incremental cuts. Board Chairs (ASM members who lead the various Boards and Committees) and Directors (ASM employees who lead staff at ASM headquarters, providing administrative support for the volunteer activities) worked together to determine which programs are most critical to ASM’s mission and which could be put on hiatus. They also looked for ways to work more efficiently within and between the various units. The proposals from each of the Boards and Committees were brought to ASM’s CEO and director of finance, who then brought compiled recommendations to the Finance Committee. Because the changes proposed by the Boards and Committees were not sufficient to reach a breakeven budget, the Finance Committee had the difficult task of making additional cuts, with information gathered from inside and outside of headquarters over several months, knowing the impossibility of making everyone happy. The Board of Directors (ASM’s new governing body) reviewed and discussed the Finance Committee’s recommendations at length, and the Board adopted the proposal at its first meeting in June 2107, after a long, thoughtful and collaborative process.  

We believe these actions, while difficult in the short term, will help right size our organization and secure our future. We understand and appreciate that some of you may not agree with the decisions we made, and I welcome hearing from you. While we are confident that these steps are necessary to position ASM for future growth and success, and to ensure our financial stability, we also expect to continue to make changes as we move forward. As I mentioned already, we need to find new revenue streams and new ways to meet the needs of our current and future members. In addition, I want to encourage you to submit your science to ASM’s network of journals and encourage others in your sphere of influence to do so, too.  When you choose to publish with a scientific society, you are directly supporting that society and all the good work it is doing.

I look forward to working with all of you towards these goals. Along those lines, in my next letter I will tell you more about our new governance structure, how it affects you, and how you should use it to make the ASM your Society.


Peggy Cotter