In my previous blog post, I examined how a conversation over Stilton cheese and great wine made me think of the role of scientific societies in today’s time and age, and the external pressure points that I see afflicting the vitality of scientific associations.
Here I would like to examine three general internal pressure points in scientific societies, which have limited the perception (or the reality) of their efficacy:
(1) With the proliferation of new fields and new societies cater to new specific interests, the large scientific societies have watched their intellectual terrain being sliced into smaller and smaller domains. Scientific societies have become more parochial and determined to compete with each other. For example, at a certain point, virologists felt their voice was not heard within ASM, and decided to start another society. Clinical virologists have split off into yet another association.
(2) As a consequence of this fractionation societies have lost sight of common issues that cut across our hastily constructed frontiers. For example, I witnessed the recent emergence of the Future of Research (FOR) association to tackle the crisis of the training pipeline in biological sciences. FOR is a fabulous group and I applaud their efforts and successes. Yet I am left asking myself: why weren’t societies ahead of this curve?
Another example that comes to mind is the Rescuing Biomedical Research group. Here four highly respected and established scientists—all four dear friends—felt they had to tackle the big systemic issues affecting today’s research by starting a new group rather than acting within the groups they had championed and even led. Again, I applaud the initiative, but again I am left wondering—why were associations not the fertile and appropriate ground for tackling these fundamentally important issues to their communities?
(3) Scientific discovery is inherently disruptive yet scientific societies have often been blindly risk-adverse. They have clung to traditional positions rather than being agents of change in the spirit of De Tocqueville. All too often, scientific societies have acted as guardians of the status quo, even when it was evident that new technologies and ways of communication were changing their own research world. Yet outside their labs, these same scientists refused to allow their scientific societies to capture new technologies for their own advancement. Look at the NIH Public Access policy governing NIH-funded publications, which many societies resisted tooth and nail. Look at the alarms many societies have sounded when faced with challenges from open access, online, or preprint publishing.
So why would a so-called “smart” person want to take on these challenges by becoming the chief executive of a large scientific society like ASM? Because I think there is a bright future before us if associations can do the right thing.
Stay tuned for the last part of the Stilton conversation in the next blog post.