Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke
February 5, 2019
Remarkably, the Ecological Society of America is more than a century old – but the relationship between scientific societies and their members have changed greatly in that time. Originally, societies existed primarily to offer their members journal subscriptions, publishing opportunities, and meetings for in-person networking. What does ESA furnish its members with today? How does this compare with some other professional and scientific societies? What other opportunities do we have to advance ecology by supporting our members?
ESA still publishes journals and offers discounted rates for page charges or open access article processing charges, of course. Thanks to digital publication and access, though, reading the journals and articles is no longer restricted to members or subscribers (as noted in last month’s post). A popular publication-related “service” appears to be highly popular with our members: sharing insights into scientific writing and publishing. Examples include workshops on publishing in journals, offered by Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment EiC Sue Silver, and the most frequently downloaded article from all our journals, a paper on writing in the ESA Bulletin. Another publication-related service is the public outreach and social media presence for selected articles from our journals; many of us do not have press officers helping spread the word about our papers, and the highlights from our Public Affairs Office or in the journal Twitter feeds can bolster the impact of our work.
Meetings organized by the Society remain valuable opportunities to present one’s research and to network. Discounted registration fees for members are a significant and popular benefit – so much so, quite a few people become members only in those years when they plan to attend and present at the August meeting. Increasingly, professional development opportunities and sessions beyond the traditional research presentations constitute large portions of the meeting experience. Field trips, policy and communication workshops, the career fair, sharing of educational resources, bystander and anti-harassment training – participation is high and there’s clamor to fit ever more of these activities into the week.
Policy efforts – policy informed by science as well as policy for science – have been a huge area of interest for our members since ESA opened its Washington, DC office in 1983. Society leaders and staff provide advocacy for the support of ecology and science generally, and (less often) for the incorporation of the best possible ecological science into particular policy decisions and regulations. ESA also provides access to ecological expertise through liaison with congressional staffers and federal agencies. Competition for spots in each year’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Awards demonstrates the high value that early career ecologists place on training and experience in communicating with decision makers. A detailed policy handbook, workshops at annual meetings, and assistance to members for linking to their own representatives are all useful products of the Public Affairs Committee and staff members. Currently, the PA office creates and distributes the highly read Policy News, distributed to all members twice each month (not just by request as was originally the case). Personally, I’ve valued its detailed information during federal budget negotiations, and explicit updates on transitions in federal agency and science committee leadership. This e-newsletter provides streamlined, easy to use, and highly informative links to current policy discussions and opportunities to provide expert comment (increasingly at the state as well as federal and international level).
Last year’s annual meeting in New Orleans saw our Science Committee take creative approaches aimed at understanding member (attendee) interests in training and professional/personal development. Demand for workshops and training ranged from modeling and statistical analysis to diversity/inclusion approaches and communication skills. The Society is increasingly using webinars and offering such opportunities outside the venue of our annual meeting. For instance, just last month, the headquarters office hosted a session on the new Four Dimensional Ecology Education Framework that was developed by ESA members and endorsed in 2018 by the Governing Board (you can view it here); among the membership, the Early Career Ecologists Section has been actively hosting sessions for its members, most recently on mentoring and looking ahead to project management and other topics.
The very concept of a scientific “society” suggests a crucial role in providing a network and sense of community. Here, too, ESA strives to be of service beyond the once-a-year national meeting. Two of our chapters routinely organize regional meetings. Sections – organized both by subdiscipline and by other dimensions of interest or identity – provide a smaller and more tailored community within the larger ESA. Our sections are always active at the Annual Meeting, but increasingly some are working hard at providing community year-round. For example, the Communication and Engagement Section is pioneering virtual business meetings, and several sections produce excellent frequent newsletters. In the past year, the vibrant Student Section has added a newsletter to keep its members updated on goings-on around the Society, plus a podcast covering topics in academic and career development.
As I have found personally, volunteer and professional service with and for the Society can be of value in one’s own career progression and leadership development. Increasingly we are trying to publicize these opportunities more broadly and to formalize our thanks and appreciation (in a format that could be used in one’s performance or promotion report, for example).
All of this is in line with what the leadership and staff of the Society have found. In the 2017 member survey, the benefits with the most enthusiastic feedback were networking, publishing, professional development, and ESA’s work in the policy arena. Those may be our strengths now, but, as we can see, there’s a concerted effort to continue to evolve and enhance these benefits. For instance, while members and non-members alike ranked the Annual Meeting very highly, networking has in part moved online through the ECO platform, and the upcoming career fair at the 2019 Annual Meeting is just one part of a broader strategy for professional development.
Could ESA learn from other scientific and professional societies? I’ve noted that some seem to focus more on ancillary (non-professional) benefits, such as discounts on insurance or car rentals, or access to group vacation tours. Personally, I haven’t felt drawn to such services – but do some of you feel differently? I also spoke recently with the president of another scientific society, not too dissimilar from ESA in its membership and interests. That society is considering a move to structure its services more as a menu of subscription options, each priced and “sold” individually, rather than as a full suite of services provided to all dues-paying members. Revenues to operate the society would then come less from membership dues and more from fees for particular offerings. What are the pros and cons of such an approach for a society like ours?
Obviously, the Ecological Society of America exists as a membership-based organization to serve ecologists. We welcome your thoughts and are always open to hearing how you perceive the services we offer – and those you would value us providing in future.
Laura F. Huenneke