Lessons From a Society of Societies
This week, ASCB went to ASAE, or rather five ASCB staffers and yours truly attended a meeting of the ASAE in Atlanta. ASCB, I trust you know, stands for the American Society for Cell Biology. The ASAE acronym remained a mystery to me until a diligent search of their website turned up the answer deep on the FAQ page (American Society for Association Executives).
By any name, ASAE was an excellent meeting, which gave me a much broader sense of the challenges and opportunities that associations face today. But, of course, I left Atlanta, pondering the role of ASCB. The common theme at ASAE was well known to all of us in professional organizations—how the Internet transformed everything and how associations have been rather slow at adapting to the change. Some believe that technology is undermining the very reason for having associations. If people can find out everything they need to know online and buy everything they need to buy online, why bother with an association? Associations have long regarded themselves as a diplomatic corps for certain issues and groups, representing their “nations” in the larger world. But now, just as in real diplomacy, “association” embassies see their role greatly diminished. In real diplomacy, small businesses can connect with foreign counterparts through the internet in a much easier way than wading through diplomatic chancelleries. Individuals can satisfy their information needs even more quickly. The general decline in membership that virtually all associations face today can essentially be ascribed to this “embassy” phenomenon.
The analogy has its merits but it does not perfectly describe the situation for scientific professional societies such as ASCB. I like to think of science as an ecosystem where federal funding agencies provide the infrastructure for the whole system, philanthropic organizations inject financial support into some specific target areas, universities and research centers perform key basic research while industry digests basic discoveries to grow new products and processes.
So where are professional societies in this environmental model? We are integral because our mission is the overall growth and ecological balance of our core area of science. For ASCB, that core is cell biology and basic science. We fill our niche by providing a forum for exchanging ideas and for communicating results—both in print an in person. We promote the training of a diverse workforce, and we advocate for basic scientific research as the driving force behind all biomedical progress. Despite the obvious challenges, ASCB’s niche in the ecosystem of basic research is not being squeezed out by technology or by the so-called new economy. Instead our niche is being enhanced. But we do need to capitalize on this historic opportunity, and here is why.
Think about publishing. Internet publishing has dramatically changed the scholarly publishing world. Who physically goes to a library anymore? And how much more can we do online that we cannot do on paper! ASCB was among the very first professional societies to embrace the opportunities inherent in the new technology of online publishing and open access. We did not see it as a threat. Instead we explored online publishing to see what we could do with it as a professional society, and we supported brave and bold ideas like the NIH Public Access Policy to scholarly publications that saw the possibilities in the national ecosystem of research.
While we may have been slower at embracing the social media revolution, ASCB is now aggressively trying to get into the game, recognizing this is an important new channel of communication with younger scientists. In the national office, we hired Christina Szalinski, a newly minted PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and promising science writer, who is taking ASCB social media to a higher level. Also, the formation of COMPASS, the committee of Postodcs and Graduate Students, opened a wonderful gateway for comment and news both about and from the rising generation of ASCB scientists.
So, is ASCB “home free” in the internet age? Far from it. But if I ask myself what I consider the biggest challenge, it is not Internet technology that could make ASCB obsolete, it’s defining what cell biology is today and who is a cell biologist. This is a complex issue, which will need more than a simple blog post. Still it’s clear today that graduate students or postdocs are as likely to identify themselves neuroscientists or cancer biologists as cell biologists. Motly those who study the core fields of cell biology, such as structure and function, seem comfortable with the cell biology label. This goes beyond fashion or branding. The actual problems that these self-labeled neuroscientists or cancer biologists tackle often involve quintessential cell biological problems, in new contexts such as the brain or tumor metastasis, but they seem to shy away from the mantle of cell biology. And this is a challenge for us.
Cell biology covers a very large breath of science and overlaps with many other disciplines. There is a perception today that to be successful, you need to carry out translational research. This creates a tendency to shift your scientific identity toward fields that allow for easier translational platforms. I was struck by data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, reported showing that the number of self-identified cell biologists was essentially steady through the years, while the number of those who identify themselves as neuroscientists explains most of the increase overall in awarded doctorates. Neuroscience is a booming field, but I would argue that many of those doing neuroscience are essentially addressing key cell biological questions.
So, if this is one of our biggest challenges, how do we define cell biology today and tomorrow? How do we interact with all the fundamental basic cellular biological research which is carried out in organ, age, or disease oriented research? I would be delighted to hear what our members, the world experts after all, think about this. Please feel free to comment here or email me directly as many of you already do. I am truly interested in your ideas.
I left the ASAE meeting energized with new ideas about the relevance of professional societies in our field. Essentially I believe science is all about exchanging ideas and results. Scientists need to meet and have a qualified forum for doing so. This is what ASCB provides. This need is not going away. To do that, ASCB needs to better serve our community by taking advantage of new technologies and opportunities.
Meantime, the idiotic crunch on research budgets imposed by Congress is stifling innovation in the country. This remains a great concern but I hope it is a transient situation, which will be corrected soon, not a structural one. The peril here is not for scientific societies alone but for the whole country. Without research and innovation, there is no future, associations or no.