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2020 Year in Review: Past President Osvaldo Sala

Photo of 2020 ESA President Osvaldo SalaI start this report by thanking members of ESA for having elected me to this position. It has been an enormous honor to be President of our Society. ESA has been my intellectual home for all my professional career: this is where I met the most interesting people and where I learned about the newest and coolest ideas. Inspiring ESA talks and posters led me to many a-ha! moments when it dawned on me that, for example, those concepts standard in soil ecology could easily be applicable to plants in drylands. It was at ESA where I met influential mentors; it was at ESA where I met my best mentees, ready to challenge existing paradigms. ESA is mi casa. Being the first Hispanic and the first foreign-born president of ESA in 105 years of existence represented an important responsibility for me. I had to meet the expectations of those who elected me. I felt that it was very important not to make any mistakes and show to a broad audience that we are all equally capable of successfully leading a society like ESA regardless of our ethnic background, the color of our skin or our accent.

During my tenure, ESA has faced the same tsunami as the rest of the world. A pandemic that created illness, death and economic collapse all over the world. In the United States, the health crisis was exacerbated by the unveiling of underlying racism. In my opinion, ESA has responded to these concurrent crises admirably. First, I need to thank the ESA staff led by Executive Director Catherine O’Riordan and Director of Meetings Christi Nam, who in a few months pivoted from a planned in-person Annual Meeting into the first completely virtual meeting. I also need to thank President-elect Kathie Weathers and Past President Laura Huenneke, who provided constant guidance and became an invaluable sounding board. Finally, the members of our Society who participated in numerous ways from the chapters and sections to the Twittersphere.

ESA’s first fully virtual Annual Meeting was a resounding success with 3,900 individuals attending online. This level of participation is on par with some previous in-person Annual Meetings. Although the virtual mode was ESA’s response to the pandemic, it taught us about the opportunities and challenges of this new modality of meeting. That almost 20% of the participants came from outside the United States was a record for ESA meetings and a testament to the potential for inclusiveness of this new format. The virtual format had advantages and disadvantages relative to previous formats. I am sure we all missed the personal interactions and casual, unscripted exchanges as well as the free-flowing conversations typical of our traditional gatherings. But on the other hand, the new format was more inclusive because ESA was able to actively involve ecologists who might not otherwise have participated in past meetings because of a scarcity of resources for travel, an inability to commit to a week-long meeting or other constraints.

ESA has also responded swiftly to the bursting of racist undercurrents that we have recently experienced. And in a short time, ESA held listening sessions with the membership and formed a special DEIJ Task Force that has examined possibilities, from governance to our existing work on Extending the Tent, that we can elevate the work and voices of Black, Indigenous and other ecologists of color in our community. Here again, I need to recognize the leadership role of Vice President for Education and Human Resources Pam Templer, Catherine O’Riordan and Director of Education and Diversity Teresa Mourad who responded effectively and quickly to these challenges.

This report will not be complete without highlighting the extraordinary work of the SEEDS program. Before the pandemic started, I had the opportunity to participate in a trip with SEEDs students to the Virginia-Coast LTER for a leadership workshop that underscored the important work of Diversity Programs Manager Fred Abbott and Teresa Mourad. This program is a model for other societies that are trying to make real progress in improving participation of underrepresented groups in science. One by one, the SEEDS program attracts and supports students that represent the future of a diverse and inclusive ESA.

My term was defined by extraordinary events, but those did not prevent me from thinking long-term about opportunities and challenges for the Society in the coming years or decades. One case of mixed opportunity and challenge is the so-called “open access,” a term best used for published research that is free for everyone to access. I want to stress that, in my opinion and its current use, this term is a misnomer because it does not refer to published research that is truly free to use. The name “open access” suggests an a priori value. Who would be for closed access? I suggest that a better description of the status quo would be to distinguish between readers-paid vs. authors-paid. Let me explain: Under the current system, libraries pay subscriptions to publishers for journals so readers can have access to the publications. In this case, readers or their institutions pay through their library support. ESA, as do all other scientific societies based in the United States, partners with one of those publishers and uses subscriptions to support the Society’s activities that we all enjoy and depend on. The alternative model is what I called authors-paid or what is commonly and cleverly called “open access.” Under this model, authors pay a publication cost that varies among journals but can be as high $6,000 per article. It is not free for everyone. If the author can’t pay, no one has access. In synthesis, while the current readers-paid model excludes some readers, the authors-paid or open access clearly excludes authors (particularly those without big grants to pay for high open-access publication fees), and hence their potential readership. 

At a broad scale, the reader- vs. author-paid duality is only one of the challenges and opportunities that we should incorporate when thinking about scenarios for scientific societies. Scenarios describe alternative pathways that, in this case, scientific societies can use to better position themselves to take advantage of potential opportunities and protect themselves from adversities. I envision four broad scenarios that occur at the intersection of two orthogonal axes associated with the nature of meetings and publications. The first axis describes the continuum between the case in which most publications remain in the domain of readers-paid with a small fraction in authors-paid open access to the other extreme where most publications become open-access. Orthogonal and independent to the publication axis is the axis related to the nature of scientific meetings. This axis describes a continuum from traditional open meetings to the 2020-type ESA Annual Meeting that was completely virtual.

This simple exercise yielded four alternative outcomes and all the intermediate cases. The first case was Business as Usual, where journals remained mostly readers-paid and meetings remained in-person. The other extreme was what I called Global, where meetings became virtual, reaching a broad audience located all over the world and extending the tent to all kinds of professionals, and The journals became open access or writers-paid, reaching a broad group of readers while limiting the access of writers and stifling alternative views. Two intermediate scenarios were models of a regional society where either the journals remained readers-paid and the meetings virtual or in-person meeting with open access. This exercise was not a projection but a way of organizing our thoughts about the future of scientific societies.

My term as ESA President has come to an end, though I am pleased that our Society is now under the excellent leadership of Dr. Kathleen Weathers. Now as Past President, I look forward to continuing to our commitment to lead excellence in ecology and to remaining active in our efforts to build bridges with other societies around the world while maintaining our focus on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in ecology. We will need many capable, dedicated volunteers to make this work forward, so I hope that you will consider service to ESA as part of your professional life.