I remember joining a sorority in high school. After pledging, we had secrets to learn. Rules, colors, and goals were memorized and recited, the exact texts never to be shared outside of our sisterhood. OR ELSE…
Dan Brown makes a pretty good living writing about secret societies. People keep joining these groups, even though death seems to be the price of holding their secrets.
Biomedical and scientific societies are not quite this secretive. Or dangerous.
In an email on March 10, The Scientist linked to an essay on membership in scientific societies. Steven Wiley briefly discusses the origins of scientific societies and their vanishing benefits. Most journals are readily available online or through a university library. Opportunities to present work flourish. Groups can be powerful advocates for funding as the NIH budget seems to be driven and targeted more and more by special interests. Networking and career advice also provide value.
Some of these groups have trouble:
many of the larger societies are struggling with stagnant or declining memberships, especially among young scientists. Although it is the youngest scientists who potentially have the most to gain from a scientific society because of networking opportunities, they are the ones who usually are most poorly served by those societies. This is because scientific societies generally cater to the status quo…
It does not have to be this way.
As a nephrologist, my strongest allegiance is to the American Society of Nephrology. I joined after completing fellowship because it was the “thing to do.” It got me a bit of a discount on registration for the annual meeting, and I could submit my abstracts without having to track down a sponsor to sign the submission form (yes, it was that long ago). Over the years, ASN has published two journals (JASN has the highest impact-factor of nephrology journals; CJASN has grown into a monthly publication), an update and self-assessment program publication (NephSAP), and a newsmagazine (which I edit). The society maintains several grant programs for research funding, and it leads advocacy efforts to maintain adequate federal funding for kidney disease research and treatment. Full benefits of membership can be found here.
ASN maintains relevancy with some less traditional output as well. Highlights of the annual meeting become RenalWeekends for members unable to attend RenalWeek, the big annual meeting. Members also work closely with the certification boards on the development of Maintenance of Certification (MOC) coursework and criteria. Board Review Courses provide another membership benefit. In the last few years, web-based learning and podcasts added to the society’s offerings.
The American Physiologic Society also impresses with their efforts to provide relevant services to members (click here for the full benefits page). For example, students and young investigators awarded travel grants for Experimental Biology are paired with “meeting mentors.” Mentors and mentees (is that a real word?) are corralled together during EB. Advice imparted includes getting the most out of a huge meeting and the power of networking. APS provides much needed career support for those pursuing careers in academia or industry, research or teaching. Advocacy and public relations on a number of topics are another service provided by the organization that make my dues worthwhile.
One reason I feel these are value-added organizations is that I have been behind-the-scenes working on committees and projects. I have seen the effort that goes into making the world, at least from the members’ perspective, a better place. Their offices are not just a clearinghouse to process membership fees.
Some of the groups that get my dues do not impress me that much, and I maintain membership because I should. Others, like ASN and APS, are making a difference. If you belong to a group that is underperforming in your eyes, perhaps you need to get involved and make something happen. Most big organizations seem to need volunteers for committees and advocacy (what they call unpaid lobbying), and they welcome junior member participation, at least in my experience.
When you come right down to it, organizations are their members.