Taking the Pulse of Scientific Societies

Scientific societies are an essential part of the research landscape. Almost all of us are members of one or more of them, and we have numerous reasons for joining. When I was a PhD student, I joined the British Society for Immunology, in part for the sense of belonging. I was eager to consider myself an immunologist; getting the badge of membership was a small but pleasurable step. My more pragmatic next-door neighbor, Steve, is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sci

Sep 8, 2003
Richard Gallagher

Scientific societies are an essential part of the research landscape. Almost all of us are members of one or more of them, and we have numerous reasons for joining.

When I was a PhD student, I joined the British Society for Immunology, in part for the sense of belonging. I was eager to consider myself an immunologist; getting the badge of membership was a small but pleasurable step. My more pragmatic next-door neighbor, Steve, is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Steve tells me that he enjoys getting his own copy of Science, but that his real reason for joining is to benefit from the massive savings he gets on car insurance, which more than covers the association's fees.

Steve and I are atypical. Neither the conferring of legitimacy nor the special offers rate among the top reasons for members' signing up. Instead (according to anecdotal responses to The Scientist1), the major motivations for joining include participating in meetings and conferences, associating with fellow scientists, and subscribing to research journals.

This is as it should be: A society's principal reasons for existence are to promote the understanding of, and interaction in, a particular field, and to use the resulting knowledge for the common good.

Logic would dictate that with the speed of research, the growth in the number of scientists, and their need to communicate, the situation for scientific societies is, superficially at least, bright. But I cannot confirm this, as details on the number of societies, their membership figures, and their financial positions are hard to come by. However, by gauging the criteria given by members for joining, some red flags are raised.

With more researchers now accessing journals through institutional subscriptions, the economic incentive to join a society for a better subscription deal is lost, which would affect revenues, at least if those supporting Open Access have it right. Societies may still generate some income by converting their journals to the Open Access model, but in some cases, commercial publishing partners are resisting this.

Meetings and conferences might be problematic to the societies' futures as well. Consider what happened this spring in Toronto. Because of the SARS scare, officials at the American Association for Cancer Research cancelled its annual meeting. The reported losses are pegged at $7.5 million.

Because of security concerns worldwide, scientists have steadily reduced their travel schedules, their decisions inevitably affecting a society's income. And, to add insult to injury, the current economic downturn will be reducing profits from the trade shows that accompany larger conferences.

So, are societies facing tough times? And if so, how are they coping? We'll investigate.

In the meantime, the numerous, positive contributions of scientific societies deserve mention. Some of these are of the utmost importance to the community at large, for example the provision of expert reports for legislators and the general public on contentious issues such as genetically modified organisms and cloning. Others are crucial to the future well-being of research, including lobbying for the science budget and developing ethical codes for scientists. Still others benefit individual scientists, such as mentoring programs, career advice, and job listings.

With a bit of creativity, even the nonprofessional benefits could become a serious attraction; my friend Steve can join different societies to get credit cards at favorable rates, car rental discounts, specialist holidays, health and dental insurance, and book buys. Maybe by adding sweet deals on tickets to rock concerts, sporting events, and museums, or even frequent-flyer miles, societies can see their enrollments grow again.

If not, that research landscape runs the risk of looking mighty barren. And that would affect us all.

Richard Gallagher, Editor
(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

1. A. Grimwade, "Why do scientists join societies?" The Scientist, 17[5]:7, March 10, 2003.

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