March/April President’s Letter: Your Society Needs Your Vote!

Rick DixonBecause of publication deadlines, I started to write this newsletter the day before the Iowa caucuses. International members of the Society may be unfamiliar with the somewhat bizarre procedure whereby the people of the state of Iowa select their preferred choices for presidential nominee for both major parties, and I would bet that many in the United States are likewise not really sure what goes on. It is lucky that voting for elected positions within ASPB is much simpler—you just have to return a ballot. But reflecting on the Iowa system did make me think about member representation within the Society and about what our manifesto is for the membership.

Politicians at election time lay out their vision for society, and the public expects them to deliver on their promises if elected. ASPB is a very different type of “society” in that presidents serve as such for only one year. Policy within the society is formulated and enacted by what is essentially shared governance, with ideas percolating upward from the various governance and nongovernance committees, direction provided by the Board of Directors and the Council, and implementation assisted by the chief executive officer and staff at ASPB headquarters. Many members serve on committees, including the various nomination committees, but committee members still form only a small percentage of the total membership. Many other members are active in the regional sections of the Society. But for the Society to truly serve its members, we need them to both vote and provide ideas and feedback on how the Society is serving their needs.

Just as politicians seek votes from different demographics, who often have different and sometimes conflicting needs and aspirations, ASPB serves a broad membership in terms of both the particular subdisciplines within the field of plant biology and the career levels of its members, from graduate students to tenured professors and beyond. Because this newsletter is read primarily by people who are already members of the Society, the analogy of a political election is perhaps misleading. Nevertheless, it is important to ask, What is ASPB promising its members? What is its platform? Why is ASPB membership important, and why is voting in ASPB elections so important for the Society?

The membership will soon be asked to select a new president-elect, a secretary-elect, and corresponding members. A strong turnout of voters sends a message that the membership is engaged and cares about the direction and activities of the Society, because these newly elected officials help steer decision making within the Society, and those decisions determine what ASPB delivers to its membership.

Membership in ASPB brings much more than reduced fees for attending the Plant Biology meetings or publishing in the Society’s journals. Career development is a particular concern of the Society, and it is especially critical that the Society serves early career researchers. I was appointed to my first faculty position in 1978, with a contract until December 2016. As long as I taught my classes and published the occasional paper, I was safe. This safety net does have downsides, though, and I left the university system nine years later for a nontenured position that I felt provided greater opportunity.

I returned to a university position just three years ago. During the intervening 25 years, the pressure on scientists to teach, to publish, and, at least in universities, to be major fundraisers has increased to a level at which I may not have been competitive based on the scant training I received during my early career. I always remember a conversation with Bill Dawson, then a member of the Noble Foundation’s Plant Biology Division External Advisory Board, over 20 years ago. Bill pointed out, as we were discussing metrics for promotion, that there are many areas in which a scientist needs to be competent in order to be successful, and just being smart at science will not cut it by itself. The list, as I remember it, also included being organized, having excellent interpersonal skills, being articulate and an excellent writer, being able to network with colleagues and forge collaborations, and, most important in the current granting climate, being able to bounce back from disappointments.

These qualities are even more important today. As a mentor, there is nothing more disappointing than seeing a young scientist’s career fail to take off because of inadequacies beyond his or her talent for science itself. ASPB membership will provide assistance to early career scientists through access to a number of resources that address the soft skills necessary for success in the modern workplace. In fact, many of these tools will be available free through the Society’s newly developing digital ecosystem Plantae; these tools will include professional development workshops, résumé posting and review, access to a global directory of plant biologists, and ways to find others with similar interests for collaboration. Plantae is a work in progress, so we will be encouraging members to post suggestions for improvements and additions.

There is currently an increasing awareness that the United States is not doing enough to foster a workforce that will be able to meet the challenges of agriculture in the 21st century. For example, the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources hosted a workshop on February 10 and 11 this year on “Building the Future Workforce for Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources,” and a report from Purdue University recently identified a shortfall of some 20,000 people per year in the food and agriculture sections of academia and industry. Clearly, there is tremendous opportunity for plant biologists in the new bio-based economy, but ensuring that they have the right training to be successful requires strong advocacy at many different levels. ASPB management, through the office of the chief executive officer and the activities of the Science Policy Committee, is deeply engaged in these conversations, and ASPB has a place at the table at meetings of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, various foundations and think tanks in the agriculture space, and NRC-sponsored committees and workshops to advocate for initiatives that will help provide mentorship and training for its members.

Please remember not just to vote at ASPB’s upcoming elections, but also to volunteer for service on committees, avail yourself of the resources that your Society provides, and engage in discussions of not just your interests but also your needs for career advancement through the Society’s social media or directly with members of the various committees. As ASPB moves forward with its new initiatives toward becoming a global one-stop shop for all things Plantae, we need your input and support.

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