I have been asked to reflect on my time as President of ASPS over the last two years. Rather than list our challenges, achievements and “might-have-beens”, I would like, instead, to address a broader set of questions which I have heard repeatedly during my Presidency: Is there any value in joining a scientific society today? Are the benefits worth the annual subscription fee? Is there more to being a member of ASPS than receiving newsletters and adding a line to our CV? I firmly believe the answers to these are yes, yes and yes. More than that, I’m convinced that the role of scientific societies has never been more important – not just for their own members but for society in general.
When I joined the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists (ASPP) in the 1980s, the annual meetings were held on university campuses often with low-priced accommodation in student colleges. They were cheap and cheerful affairs with scotch finger biscuits for morning tea, cheese and pickle sandwiches for lunch and Nescafe coffee. A single stream of presentations meant that everyone heard all talks on every topic. There was plenty of time for discussions. Overlapping interests were discovered, spontaneous mentoring occurred and collaborations were forged. The Society was active and healthy and chugged along nicely, providing important support for our plant scientists.
With time, things changed and evolved, as they always do. Indeed, biology itself was undergoing its own revolution. ASPP was renamed the Australian Society of Plant Scientists (ASPS) to encompass the broader range of topics our members were investigating; especially the burgeoning area of molecular biology. Furthermore, ASPS was invited to join other biological societies to organise larger annual meetings known as ComBio. The benefits of such meetings included the broader range of topics presented in both plant and animal research and the ability to invite and support high-profile researchers from overseas.
ComBio meetings regularly attracted 800 participants or more and scheduled many parallel sessions. They were big and busy and very exciting to younger researchers. However, these meetings proved to be considerably more expensive to attend and their scale and breadth alienated some members. Many decided that their precious travel budget was best served attending smaller meetings that focused on their specific research area.
For this and other reasons no doubt, the membership of ASPS began to fall. Other societies in Australia and overseas reported the same trend. This steady decline was disappointing for ASPS and presented a major headache for its leadership because a dwindling subscription base limited their activities, especially the capacity to hold meetings and support student travel.
It was not just students that were deciding not to join. Early-career researchers (ECRs) were leaving as well, perhaps because they were preoccupied with their own challenges during the early 2000s. We knew anecdotally at the time, and then more formally from a survey1 conducted by Science and Technology Australia (STA), that the morale among Australian scientists and STEM professionals was alarmingly low, with job security a major factor. Chasing short-term grants and relying on the creativity of academic bosses to extend contracts left many ECRs disillusioned with their chosen careers. Many considered leaving science research and some did.
Strategies were devised to reverse the declining membership but nothing much worked – at least not until two things happened. The first of these was a vote by ASPS to change the structure of their annual meetings. It was decided that the annual meetings would alternate between ComBio-style meetings, and smaller ASPS-only meetings. This was a gamble since no-one was really certain just how popular a smaller traditional meeting would be. The test for this strategy came with the first ASPS-only meeting at La Trobe University in 2019. It proved to be highly successful and demonstrated that the old model could still attract a crowd, boost membership and be profitable to boot.
The second factor that reversed the decline in membership, oddly enough, was COVID. It turns out that a couple of years of home isolation doing literature searches and anxiously waiting for laboratory access to resume, motivated many to grasp every opportunity to rub shoulders with colleagues again. We know this because the first ASPS-only hybrid-style meeting held after COVID restrictions were relaxed in 2021 was another great success and a welcome fillip to membership. The pent-up enthusiasm for local face-to-face meetings was still apparent at ComBio2022.
So back to the beginning: What are the benefits of ASPS membership? For students and early career researchers they are clear but they extend to senior scientists as well. There are the material benefits – such as the generous travel support for students and the awards and recognition of research excellence. In addition, ASPS offers a community of like-minded people with similar goals and the opportunity to present and share research in a non-discriminatory, nurturing environment. It fosters formal and informal mentoring and enables cross-disciplinary connections and collaborations. ECRs and senior members can advise and support one another as they negotiate the difficulties of their demanding careers. They are also encouraged to join leadership teams or participate in the STA run Science Meets Parliament which provide insights into science policy and governance in Australia and beyond. Members can also extend their networks by representing ASPS on national and international science bodies such as STA or The Global Plant Council. The value of all these opportunities became more obvious when they were suddenly restricted or denied us by COVID. Although success of the post-Covid meetings were aided by other international meetings being on-line only or cancelled, it highlights the value of maintaining active local societies to fall back on.
However, scientific societies like ASPS have an even more crucial role this century – not for their members but for society. Science is experiencing a crisis of trust and credibility. It should be a concern to us all that in public debates around the world scientific information is rejected out of hand and replaced by half-truths, opinions and falsehoods. Remember the claims that Covid was a fake story concocted by scientists to attract more research funds? Or do you recall an ex-Prime Minister raising doubts about climate change2 because he had seen photographs of Manly Beach over many decades and not noticed any changes to the water level? Apart from being demonstrably untrue3 they would be laughable if they were not so serious. The world is confronted with an unprecedented list of challenges and for us to have any chance of meeting and overcoming them, our leaders need to make decisions based on the best, most reliable information available. Therefore, all claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts” need to be openly tested so we don’t slide into a nightmare scenario where no-one is sure what or real and what is fantasy. The loudest message cannot be the only criterion for what is truth. As informed and scientifically-literate members of society we should participate in these debates with our friends, with our families and with our societies. We should ensure that all contentious claims be backed by legitimate and independent sources so everyone is clear what is fact and what is fiction.
Individuals can be a voice in the storm but their impact will be minimal if no-one hears them. Scientific societies that present the collective opinion of scores of experts provide a more persuasive channel for expressing views to larger audiences than do individuals. I hope and trust that science institutions around the world, will continue to engage in these debates so that we can be better prepared for the challenges ahead. So, yes, there are many compelling reasons to join ASPS and other scientific societies.