President’s Letter: Service and Recognition in Our Society

Rick DixonOn the front page of the November/December issue of the ASPB News, alongside my first President’s Letter, was an exhortation to “On your mark, get set…nominate!” ASPB currently has about 4,000 members and is hoping to greatly increase this number thorough its new Plantae portal. It is really important that members feel they are part of something important and are inspired to contribute to the Society’s purpose. Since joining ASPB’s management team, I have been very impressed with the dedication and hard work of the staff and large body of volunteers who constitute the chairs and members of the Society’s various committees. These people give freely of their time, often at weekends, to brainstorm, argue, plan, and evaluate all aspects of the Society’s operations. This effort is much more rewarding if they can see that the membership itself is engaged in the Society’s activities.

So how can members express their interest in and support for the Society? Between the annual meetings, when members engage directly with one another in sessions and workshops, the best opportunity is through the nominations process. ASPB has many awards (more than 15), some awarded annually, some less frequently. Each award is handled by dedicated awards committees with four to six members who meet, usually by teleconference, to review nominations. The 2016 Call for ASPB Award Nominations will be sent to all members on January 4, 2016, and nominations will be due by Wednesday, February 17.

Please think hard about people whose work you respect and feel is important, whether for lifelong service to plant biology (e.g., Corresponding Membership or the Fellow of ASPB Award), for a specific area of our science (e.g., the newly endowed ASPB Innovation Prize for Agricultural Technology), or for exceptional promise in an early career scientist (e.g., the Eric E. Conn Young Investigator Award or the Early Career Award). Also, don’t forget to nominate people who have shown excellence in education.

Finally, please let us know of other awards categories that you believe merit recognition but are not covered by the present list. ASPB management is actively considering new fundraising strategies for the Society, and endowment of new awards categories may appeal to more senior members looking to give back to the Society.

In addition to ASPB’s own awards, the Society’s management team often nominates individuals, or groups of individuals, for prestigious international awards such as the World Food Prize (awarded to Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert Fraley in 2013) or prominent national awards such as the National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation. These nominations are submitted by the Science Policy Committee; this process would certainly be enhanced by more input from the membership.

This gets me to thinking about the various ASPB committees and ways in which members can serve the Society through participation on these committees. The committees are broadly divided into governance and nongovernance committees. The governance committees are the Board of Trustees and the Constitution and Bylaws Committee. The nongovernance committees are the Education Committee, International Committee, Publications Committee, Membership Committee, Minority Affairs Committee, Program Committee, Science Policy Committee, and Women in Plant Biology Committee. If you are not already familiar with the remits of these committees, please check the ASPB website to find summaries in the Constitution and Bylaws section.

Between now and October 1, 2016, Sally Mackenzie, the current president-elect, will be considering appointments to fill vacancies on many of these committees. Please consider making inquiries or nominations, either to Sally or to the relevant committee chairs. New blood and new ideas are critical for moving the Society forward. I particularly encourage members from industry to both nominate and volunteer. ASPB currently has about 100 members from industry (too few, in my opinion), and we particularly value their special insights and experience.

One of ASPB’s major services to its members is advocacy for plant biology through dialogue with legislators at both the federal and state levels and in the broader community through outreach and education. The Science Policy Committee generally spearheads the approaches to legislators, but the membership at large can, and does, contribute in this area. The important point is that we deliver a clear and coherent message. The Society has supported the production and dissemination of the Decadal Vision document (, which provides just such a message and charts a path for plant biology research over the next 10 years. But promotion of this agenda, which should not in itself be seen as in any way controversial, is facing some pushback from certain groups who are opposed to many aspects of plant biotechnology. Their tactic has been to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain e-mails from plant biologists who have been identified as having links to industry in an attempt to paint them as pawns and to discredit their strongly held beliefs in the importance of technological advances. A similar strategy had previously been targeted at climate change scientists.

As we are all aware, no new technology is ever without risks, and a vigorous debate about risks versus benefits is appropriate and welcome. The danger of the FOIA approach is that it either deliberately or collaterally drives a wedge between academia and industry at a time in history when interactions between the two are increasingly needed to develop broadly adapted crops and new, carbon-neutral sources of feed, fiber, and fuels.

The debate in the press and the blogosphere appears, in my opinion, to completely misunderstand the broad continuum of types of interactions between academia and industry; these vary from relatively open collaborations through funding agreements essentially little different from those supported by a federal agency to more restrictive agreements for, for example, testing of commercial cultivars. We should condemn any examples of academic scientists who “sell out” their principles and beliefs for monetary gain, but I have yet to be convinced of any real examples in our field. Why do we have land grant universities and offices of research and economic development? Why are links with industry regarded as just fine, or even essential, in engineering or computer science? This is a debate in which our membership needs to stand up and speak with a clear voice.

Please think about service to our Society beyond just nominating people for awards and committees. We need to be more active in the public debate; after all, it’s about us and what we do. Please join those of our members who have contributed to blogs in support of plant science in all its aspects, and be active in engaging with your legislators at both the state and federal levels. Let them know that plant biology research is going to be critical for economic development over the next 20 years and that, although their constituents are increasingly concerned about the negative information being disseminated, plants provide the key to economic development and future prosperity, as well as to a livable planet for future generations.

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