Stilton Cheese, Alexis de Toqueville and Turning ASM into the Tesla of Scientific Societies—Part 1.

April 26, 2016

"Stefano, you seem like a smart person. Can I ask you why you decided to take a job with a scientific society?" I had just helped myself to a slice of a very sharp Stilton cheese, after a wonderful dinner supported by wonderful wine. All of a sudden the Stilton seemed even sharper. The question came from a very dear board member with whom I had worked in the past and who was someone whose opinion I treasured. I felt compelled not to fall back on defensive self-justification but instead to understand what was behind her rather chilling statement. Perhaps I had just made the biggest mistake of my life!

As the cheese conversation proceeded, I soon realized that my friendly prosecutor held an opinion of scientific societies that started as stodgy and went downhill from there, As I have since discovered, even among dedicated scientists, associations are seen as little more than good stewards for organizing scientific meetings and overseeing scholarly publishing, 

So had I misread the role of scientific societies? Are they so unimportant in the scheme of things? Over the years since the Stilton confrontation and more recently since becoming the CEO of the ASM, I could not disagree more. I am a huge fan of scientific associations and I see an even bright future for those societies willing to think differently.

I draw my inspiration from the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville whose tour of the early American republic and his 1835 landmark historical treatise Democracy in America seems to me as relevant today as when it was first published. In this book, de Tocqueville devotes a full chapter to the role of associations in America. “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England,” de Tocqueville wrote, "in the United States you will be sure to find an association."

In his view, the Jeffersonian concept of society greatly values individual freedom but that comes at the expense of the individual’s power to change anything in society. According to de Tocqueville, a lone individual is ineffective as an agent of change and unable to implement significant innovation. Hence, the power of associations in America. When people with common interests come together, they can push for change that is beneficial to them and to their cause. One of the best proofs of the de Tocqueville hypothesis was the rise of the scientific society in America.  As associations, they were able to support education, convince government to fund research, and change public attitudes. Yet something fundamental has changed in recent years and it has sharply reduced the power and influence of associations of all kinds. Where associations were the original social network, the living YouTube channels of America, this is no longer the case today.

I see five main external pressure points impinging on the effectiveness of scientific societies today:

  1. We have many new ways of communicating and can connect among ourselves organically, making the need of a convener, such as an association, less compelling.
  2. We, scientists, have made an imprudent marriage (BIG mistake, folks!). We have handed over the fruits of our work for distribution to a small number of well-branded, profit-driven commercial journals. For the scientist, this cartel has made scientific publishing particularly painful, inefficient, and absurd. These journals claim to measure our impact but only measure their own standing. These self-proclaimed high-impact journals have pushed journals run by and for our community to the margins. And we, scientists, did this to ourselves.
  3. Budgets are tighter than ever, squeezing dollars that were previously used for participating in society meetings, journals, and committee service.
  4. ​The demands on a scientist’s time have grown exponentially, whether teaching, grant writing, or mentoring. In science today, everyone is stretched thin, forced to do more with less and in less time.
  5. The bitter partisan stalemate in Washington has significantly reduced the ability of scientific societies to bring their expertise to bear on policy and legislation. There are far fewer committee hearings, far fewer bills becoming law, and far more suspicion of scientific consensus.

​Stay tuned for a continuation of the Stilton conversation in the next blog post.

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.