Stilton Cheese, Alexis de Toqueville and Turning ASM Into the Tesla of Scientific Societies—Part 3.

May 10, 2016

In my previous two blog posts I examined what in my view is hindering the vitality of scientific societies, all triggered by a sharp conversation over sharp Stilton cheese with a good friend-inquisitor of mine. In this third and last post of the Stilton story, I want to examine why scientific societies like ASM are still relevant and so important and what they need to become in the near future to advance their missions. 

Here is why, and to a certain extent how, societies like ASM can be successful and are essential in the scientific ecosystem. I’d like to start addressing what in part two of this blog series I identified as an internal pressure point—the fact that societies have become too parochial.

ASM’s Big Tent

Let’s start from what ASM President Lynn Enquist said in a highly acclaimed paper in mBio a few months ago. Lynn speaks of the ASM as the BIG tent. This image has stuck with many of us in the microbial sciences community as the essence of the ASM strategic plan which sees the need for ASM to be the forum for microbial sciences as the cornerstone of its reason for existence. So, the way forward for ASM is to make the tent bigger, not to spread out into a sprawling tent city.  The synergies that come from working under an umbrella organization are not available to a soggy field dotted with pup tents. Very often, the issues that we advocate for are not under the purview of a single organization. If our mission is truly that of promoting the microbial sciences, then it becomes imperative for the ASM to unite all forces who are willing to help and be that forum for microbial sciences that can help scientists grow and advance the field. 

Sometimes even our big tent isn’t big enough. The Zika virus offers a pressing example. All on its own, ASM could have announced new initiatives to confront the Zika epidemic. Instead we worked collegially with the American Society of Virology (ASV) to quickly organize an important conference on the basic biology of flaviviruses. I am proud of this approach, which exemplifies the flexibility of Lynn’s image of the big tent.

Strategic Alliances 

The second reason I jumped at the chance to join ASM seeing a bright future for this association, are new opportunities for strategic alliances with the for-profit and non-profit sectors. At ASM, under the leadership of ASM clinical microbiologist Joe Campos and Strategic Alliances Director Connie Herndon, we’ve already been able to greatly increase our footprint of collaborations, initiatives and outreach. This program is still in its infancy but it seems bound to grow into a great resource for ASM and for all who work in microbiology. We are trying to approach these collaborations with the spirit of a startup. We want to move with agility but without fear of trying innovations that might sometimes fail. Our plan is try to fail quickly and fail cheaply, regarding setbacks as a badge of honor, proof that we have tried new things before moving on to experiment with the next thing that could add value to the microbial sciences community. This is an important strategy to achieve our mission of advancing microbial sciences and be the forum for our communities (note the plural). In fact, identifying new partnerships and new sources of revenue, besides the classic revenue streams of membership, meetings, and publications, is what I see as an essential way forward for expanding the footprint of the tent and include professional areas, people, and approaches that today may not see themselves at home at ASM. Stay tuned on this, some important announcements as a result of Connie’s and Joe’s leadership to come soon.

Global Policy to Tackle Global Problems

The third reason I believe that ASM will evolve into a new model for science associations is our expansion as a global convener of bold policy initiatives for the microbial sciences and infectious diseases. Our approach will go beyond flag planting and parceling. There will be another crisis after Zika, and one after that. We do not know what the next crisis will be but we have a duty to create the foundation for international systems and networks that can quickly convene stakeholders. This has to be done at the domestic as well as the international level. We must continue trying to educate Congress about the new reality of global transmission and pressure government to give microbiologists the resources to react. But old strategies of letter writing and constituent visits aren’t effective on their own anymore; they are necessary, but not sufficient. The big tent needs to expand also its global policy effectiveness and be the catalyst for big initiatives able to solve daunting problems afflicting the developing world. The Academy of Microbiology under the leadership of Michele Swanson and Marina Moses, together with Policy board chair Ron Atlas and Policy Director Janet Shoemaker are active on this front, another important channel to stay tuned on.

The Digital Forum for Microbial Sciences

Finally, I see associations as ideally placed to become powerful new voices on social media. To do this, ASM needs the technology of today’s—not yesterday’s—social networks. ASM is investing significant resources on this front to offer an unprecedented platform to the microbial science community for interaction with each other and with the general public. In my first posting of the Stilton cheese inquisition, I mentioned the fact that professional societies originally were the scientific social network, but that today, it is no longer the case. It is in this spirit that at ASM we are heavily involving technology to develop capabilities of creating that digital forum for microbial sciences, which brings us together in new ways and geometrically grows the power of connecting people. I am particularly impressed by the ASM Division C (our clinical division) listserv. The frequency and the depth of questions clearly indicate a great value for that community being part of ASM. This can be enhanced and “put on steroids” in the future for this as well as for many other communities. Stay tuned, much more to come on this front.

So this brings me back to that sharp Stilton cheese and my friend’s equally pointed questions. Yes, the old model of the lumbering, stodgy, and remote association is no longer working. But a “smart” person can see that associations have the members, the resources, and the credibility to re-invent scientific societies. Our world and our science are changing. If the fossil fuel clunker is outdated in the age of climate change so is the quarantine officer searching steam ships in the age of Zika. We need to update de Tocqueville’s once powerful associations. I want to see ASM become the Tesla of associations. And with that in mind, I look forward to reporting back to my friend while offering another cheese plate for another sharp conversation; we have to move fast, ASM, because I cannot wait to have my round two of Stilton cheese inquisition, equipped with new evidence and arguments!

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

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