What an honor it has been to serve as your president for 2017-2018! Everything I imagined the experience may bring, and then some, filled my year serving as your president. Beginning my term on the heels of ESA’s 100th anniversary, the political upheaval of the last U.S. presidential election and the emergence of a “post-truth world” reminded me of the importance of our science to the health and well-being of the Earth and all of its inhabitants. Indeed, after more than a century of greatly advancing our knowledge of ecology, we are increasingly being challenged to deliver persuasive scientific analysis to current environmental problems across diverse stakeholders.
Of course, ESA has made great strides in enhancing the relevance of ecology. The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative, launched in 1991, was a major step in bringing the ecological sciences to bear on environmental issues. The next two decades brought the reports Ecological Science and Sustainability for a Crowded Planet and the Earth Stewardship Initiative, both of which brought the concepts of action-oriented research and translational ecology into the lexicon of ecologists. ESA as an organization, however, has internal challenges that are increasingly becoming acute as the world around us changes. These issues include the retention of members, a persistent lack of diversity and gender equity issues, a dearth of professional development for students and early career ecologists, among others. As we have historically drawn the majority of our members from academia, we must now recognize the declining number of tenure track positions for an increasing number of graduating PhD ecologists. In fact, recent data suggests that fewer than a quarter of graduating PhD ecologists are finding tenure track positions in academia. Even with this recent trend, the majority of our membership continues to be largely academic, white, and male.
To enhance our relevance and to address these membership issues, I have, with the support of Laura Huenneke and David Lodge, created an initiative to “Extend the Tent” of ESA. Our intention was for ESA to embrace those ecologists who work in the private sector or in related professions that use ecological knowledge to achieve informed innovative solutions. More importantly, we felt ESA must constantly improve the ways in which it welcomes and supports all ecologists – including race, gender, career stage, economic background, and the many other intersectional aspects of human diversity. By taking these steps, ESA would be better positioned to engage decision makers and the general public across the geographic, social and economic divides of our nation.
To get the initiative going, I formed the Extending the Tent (ET) Task Force, which comprises representatives from across ESA. The overall charge of the task force is to develop a vision for ESA membership for the next 20 years that addresses inclusion, diversity, and engagement (with other disciplines, practitioners, public, and policy makers); develop a strategy to achieve this vision; and address diversity in professional and employment sectors. With the leadership of Laura Huenneke and now myself, the ET Task Force has sought input from the membership via a town hall meeting in New Orleans and through a digital form made accessible via ESA’s website. A preliminary report was given to the Governing Board at their 2018 fall meeting, with a subsequent report bringing forward specific recommendations for the 2019 spring meeting.
Also during my year as president was the retirement of ESA’s executive director, Katherine McCarter, who had admirably served ESA for more than 20 years. I cannot say enough about Katherine’s importance to ESA and how she and her staff helped bring the Society from the verge of financial collapse to the more than $6 million annual budget that we now have, in addition to a rainy day fund that is expected to reach $5 million in a few years. In her honor, the Governing Board approved the naming of the Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award and doubled the number of students receiving them.
With the bar raised by Katherine’s tenure as executive director, the search for her successor became that much more important. Thanks to Charles Canham and his leadership of the Search Committee, we were fortunate to find and hire Dr. Catherine O’Riordan, who is the third to ever hold the position of executive director of ESA. How fortunate we are to have Catherine, as she has the rare combination of leadership experience with scientific associations, program management, knowledge of public policy, international perspectives as well as her background with research. It has been both a pleasure and learning experience working with Catherine.
It has been a pleasure and honor to serve as president of ESA. I could not have made it through the year without the mentorship of my predecessors, Monica Turner and David Lodge, the energetic involvement and work of the Governing Board, or the assistance of both Katherine McCarter and Catherine O’Riordan and the support of their talented staff. My sincerest thanks to all of you.
Ultimately the leadership and staff of ESA cannot bring the Society, or the science of ecology, to where it needs to be without the participation of its members. Please consider ways you may bring your own vision and talents to become involved as we create more opportunities. Perhaps begin by providing input to the ET initiative or getting involved with the wonderful array of ESA activities and governance—it will help us to make a difference!