My First Year at the Wheel: Reflections on ASM
Perhaps with more enthusiasm than originality, I feel compelled at the end of the year to look back on what has happened in my life. The compulsion is even stronger this December, since the end of the calendar year coincides with my first year at the helm of ASM as its CEO.
When I joined ASM, I wanted to revitalize our excellent strategic plan, putting into words that would resonate and inspire our community, a description of our goals; ASM would be an innovative, visionary society that constantly pushed the definition of what is possible in the emerging physical and digital forum to fully benefit the microbial sciences.
Not surprisingly, 2016 was a year of changes—big, small and everything in between. ASM took decisive actions on the Zika epidemic, modernized ASM governance, and witnessed a new presidential administration get ready to take office, offering timely recommendations for priorities and for the people who will implement them. ASM also fully embraced the so-called DORA movement (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment) which deliberately disses the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) by abolishing any reference to that noxious system of ranking journals by flawed metrics from the ASM journals website. Yet so much has been accomplished at ASM this year, that even a simple catalog would be too long and too boring for even the most devoted bLogPhase readers. Instead, let me focus on a few personal top moments.
Immediately after taking the helm, I wanted not only to get to know the society from office in DC, but I wanted to meet our members in their “habitats” in the trenches. I started a tour of the ASM Branches that took me to 15 Branches around the country. I met many of you, young inspired microbial scientists, educators, clinical and agricultural microbiologists, and so many more. It was a wonderful experience, which taught me a lot about our organization and has provided enormous value in guiding my thinking and activities throughout the year. Thank you to all of those Branches who hosted me, I look forward to meeting more of you in those Branches I have not yet had the opportunity to visit.
To my mind, no area is more overdue for innovation than scholarly publishing. Making ASM a laboratory for innovation is central to our strategy for the society to become the go-to center for digital science communication progress. I set out the case in my recent bLogPhase Post that the scholarly publishing sector is overdue for major innovation, because for all the noise and confusion, we have failed to capitalize on the power of the digital era.
This year we announced our response to this digital stalemate, mSphereDirect (mSD), which will launch in January. mSphereDirect is an experiment aimed at two of the most entrenched problems in publishing: rapidity and author control. We believe that mSphereDirect will give authors real control over the peer review process as well as introducing greater transparency and speed into the system. mSphereDirect aims to take the mystery out of the peer-review process by allowing authors to choose the most appropriate reviewers for their work. This new pathway for publishing will make peer review a more constructive experience. It will allow for publication decisions to be made faster but with the same rigor and quality control that is a hallmark of all ASM journals, including all papers submitted through the regular mSphere track. Editors will closely evaluate the mSD reviews, rendering a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in five working days. mSD fully interfaces with preprints, which are encouraged by ASM. Coupled with other ASM initiatives already set for roll-out in the coming months, mSD hopes to engage the scientific community in the reinvention of scientific publishing while ensuring rigor and promoting reproducibility. I am excited that it is ASM driving theses innovations. They will allow authors to publish good research faster and move the microbial sciences into what I am calling the Second Digital Age.
We launched our own blog network in February and have been adding more blogs through the year. My own blog, bLogPhase, as well as our microbial sciences blog, helped bring nearly 100,000 new readers to www.asm.org. Our education blog was named one of the most popular blogs in microbial science by Feedspot in December. Congratulations to the education blog. You beat me hands down as the bLogPhase blog did not even come close to making the award cut!
2016 was also the year of Zika. The rapid arrival of the virus on the global health scene only underlined the need for rapid response from researchers to identify, contain, and prevent viral epidemics. ASM responded with a Zika resource webpage. We asked Dr. Vincent Racaniello at Columbia University, who is our Communication Committee Chair and the lead author of the virology “bible” textbook, to start his sobering Zika Diaries blog.
In June, ASM held a special “President @ASM” conference followed by a press conference on Zika, “What Does the Biology of Flaviviruses Tell Us About Zika: The Importance of Fundamental Virus Biology.” The conference was held at ASM headquarters in Washington, D.C. and featured some of the best and brightest in the field including Kristin Bernard, Mike Diamond, Eva Harris, John Schoggins, and Charlie Rice.
Ditching Impact Factors
In July, ASM made the bold decision to leave journal impact factors (JIFs) behind. ASM decided we could no longer contribute to the inappropriate focus on JIF that is distorting our profession. Changing the culture of incentives in science is a long haul project but even a 100,000 mile journey begins with a single step. ASM has stepped firmly out of the JIF line. We hope other publishers and societies will continue to join us. As I told a reporter from Nature, it is essential to purge scientific publishing of the JIF’s baleful influence. On a professional level, we want to make bragging about a JIF paper sound tacky so that scientists will be embarrassed even to mention JIFs in a professional setting. This may sound harsh but it is a open secret that the JIF is a flawed and phony metric that distorts incentives and does not help good science. We would like to see it become a laughing stock, not a menace to scientific careers.
The Kavli Ideas Challenge
The microbiome is a bourgeoning area for microbial sciences. ASM had partnered with the Kavli Foundation, the American Chemical Society, and the American Physical Society to award $1 million in interdisciplinary research funding to explore the microbiome and devise new tools for researchers to exploit that knowledge. You can watch my video explaining this important topic and amazing opportunity.
ASM Governance & Strategic Plan
ASM’s 100-year-old governance structure was a product of our history and our genuine concern that the society be open and democratic. But the old structure was so slow-moving that making any change was a laborious struggle. In 2016, the membership of ASM took a leap forward, voting to reform and update our governance. Thanks to the hard work and good will of so many members, we generated a streamlined structure that was ratified overwhelmingly by the general membership. In essence, we made three major changes. ASM will now be governed by a Board composed of 14-18 Directors, led by the ASM President serving in a new role as Board Chair. Previously ASM had to rely on a 93 elected officials, more of a stakeholder group than a governing board! The reform will allow the new Board to govern ASM with greater agility and efficiency. The Board will now be advised by a large and inclusive Council on Microbial Sciences (COMS), a group charged with overseeing the larger scientific and programmatic strategies of ASM.
This September at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, ASM hosted the first-ever ASMicro Day, an open program of learning and insights from leaders in microbiome research. ASMicro Day allowed students to discover the wealth of resources that ASM can provide to microbiologists. We look to expand this model to highlight ASM’s presence on campuses around the country..
ASM on Ethics in Research
Ethical issues in research and in reporting scientific results is another key subject in which ASM has long been involved. To provide new tools for the ethical conduct of research, ASM launched the new Ethics Portal this year to provide clearer guidelines for authors publishing in ASM journals. The Ethics Portal is another step toward defining issues of research misconduct, providing resources to help authors conduct and report their studies in an ethical manner. An additional resource is a report from the American Academy of Microbiology on the reproducibility of microbiological research.
Microbe Meeting Revamp
Our flagship meeting, ASM Microbe, absorbed the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) this year. This allowed us to broaden Microbe’s scope. The meeting was a resounding success with ~12,000 microbial scientists converging on Boston to discuss their science and learn from each other. A keynote by Bill Gates opened the ASM microbe meeting, with the Microsoft founder turned global health reformer, reiterating the central role that microbiologists must play in our brave new world of fast-moving health, disease, and food issues.
Moving forward, Microbe will provide yet more opportunities for attendees to showcase their science before peers and field leaders. In 2016, only 5% of ASM speakers were selected from submitted abstracts. We are doubling this number in 2017, increasing the odds to one in five for an abstract to be selected for oral presentation at this major scientific meeting. ASM meetings have always attracted great ideas and great talent. We will create more opportunities for this talent to shine at ASM Microbe.
We also need to think of new ways for ASM Microbe ally our efforts with societies and groups outside ASM. Co-locating or co-sponsoring events with sister scientific organizations could be an effective way for ASM to advance the microbial sciences by synergy and collaboration.
ASM and AMR
In September, ASM President Susie Sharp joined global leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in a historic meeting that focused on the commitment to fight antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Heads of state and delegation leaders drafted a resolution calling for collaborative, cross-cutting approaches to counter AMR. ASM was at the table in New York as country after country raised concerns about AMR. A list of priorities was drafted ranging from the basic need for clean water and sanitation to access to effective antibiotics in lower-income nations. The declaration also targeted incorrect and overutilization of antibiotics in both human and food animal populations while calling for alternate strategies to disconnect AMR from the health and growth protection of food animals.
The night before the UN meeting, I hosted a salon gathering with key science reporters at my residence in DC. Susie Sharp and Martin Blaser were in attendance to ensure that the discussion was lively and wide ranging. This salon with reporters evening proved that ASM knows the value of being at the right tables.
ASM Member Awarded Nobel Prize
Monday, October 3, was a Nobel morning and I awoke to the joyous news that longtime ASM member Yoshinori Ohsumi had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy, a fundamental process in cells that is used to degrade and recycle cellular components. Dr. Ohsumi did his breakthrough work in baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), a unicellular eukaryote that has many properties of vertebrate cells and higher organisms, and had published some of his research in ASM’s journals.
I should pause for breath here. That was a lot for any year and I could go on about other ASM accomplishments for 2016. Moreover I see many, more innovations in the works for 2017, both from ASM and from its 50,000 member scientists. I would like to thank them all for their support and engagement with the Society but it would take all of 2017 and beyond to reach all of you. But let me just say that ASM is amazing organization and you, ASM member, are at the epicenter of all that your society does, all that we are, and all that we want to be. Because we are a large society, we are a powerful force to advance the microbial sciences, to tackle daunting world problems, and to make the case for evidence-based, rigorous science. It was a good year and with, I hope, a better year to come. I enjoyed blogging here throughout the year sharing my ideas with all of you. Now, let me wish you all a happy, safe, and scientifically prosperous 2017.