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A Plan for AAS Institutional Representatives

Friday, April 5, 2013 - 10:04

For most astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and solar physicists, the AAS is, at best, a peripheral part of their lives. Given the ever-accelerating pace of modern life, peripheral things get neglected -- non-urgent emails get deleted, deadlines get skipped, dues renewals get forgotten, and calls for support get ignored. Political parties overcome this problem by having a hierarchy of unpaid, partially paid, and fully paid volunteers and staffers, and a party's effectiveness on election day comes not from the leadership but from the precinct captains. I have proposed the AAS adopt the precinct-captain model and, at the January Council meeting, we agreed to proceed.

Every institution (college or university, research center, or company) with more than half a dozen astronomy staff or students (the limit is flexible) will designate an AAS Agent; groups of smaller institutions might designate one representative. This person will have a limited set of responsibilities that would include:

  • recruiting new members. While membership numbers in the AAS are quite steady, a large number of practicing astronomers do not belong to the AAS. The Society works for all astronomers -- managing journals, organizing meetings, providing career and educational resources, and advocating for our discipline in Washington -- all services essential to the success of our field and the individuals who work in it. Everyone who is involved in our efforts to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the universe should support the Society's work.
  • in the case of universities with PhD programs, developing a systematic approach to graduate student membership. Currently, the AAS provides a two-years-for-one-year's-dues offer for new graduate students. A new model would be for a department to enroll each new student by supporting his or her dues for two years; in such cases, the Society will match this commitment. Thus, for one departmental payment of twice the annual junior-member dues, every student would have free membership for four years, two years with departmental support and two years from the AAS. This would be a concrete symbol of welcoming new students to the profession while establishing membership as an important (and routine) part of being an astronomer.
  • holding a once-a-year or semi-annual meeting about AAS issues. Most departments and observatories have a regular tea, wine and cheese, pizza lunch, etc. A portion of one of these events which gathers a large fraction of the local population could be dedicated to providing information about the AAS and fielding questions. I am frequently surprised to learn that many astronomers do not realize that the Society owns and manages the highest impact astronomy journals in the world, that it provides state-of-the-art conference organizing services for topical meetings, that it hosts a variety of resources and runs programs for public education, and that it serves as a highly effective voice in Washington for advancing our field and in supporting federal investment in research and education. There are many opportunities for astronomers at all levels to become involved through AAS divisions, committees, working groups, and programs such as Astronomy Ambassadors and Communicating with Washington. A more knowledgable and involved membership makes for a stronger and more effective Society.
  • providing suggestions to the AAS for improved/new/outdated services. The Society exists to serve its members. The Council, a number of committees, and the Executive Office constantly evaluate the Society's programs and think about ways to improve what we offer. However, we are far from the sole repository of good ideas and broader consultation can only be helpful.
  • acting as the point person in getting people to respond to action alerts when crucial policy issues require citizen participation. These typically don't even happen once a year, but when a decision is about to be made, letters, calls, and visits to Congress by astronomers in each state and district can produce large effects. Having local agents who can walk into a colleague's office instead of hoping he or she responds to a mass email would substantially boost our effectiveness.

In return for being an AAS Agent, we can't offer tickets to the Inaugural Ball. But we do want to recognize this important service. First, there will be a reception at each winter AAS meeting for the Agents at which we will exchange information, collect feedback, and thank you for your efforts. Secondly, we will make available to each Agent one junior meeting registration waiver to be used at his or her discretion.

Over the next few months, members of the Council and I will be contacting each department, observatory, research institute, planetarium, and company to solicit volunteers and nominations for AAS Agents. We hope to have the network in place by September when membership solicitations and renewals will go out with an exciting new initiative to make membership even more attractive.

I welcome feedback on how we can make this program effective, efficient, and valuable to astronomers and to the Society; with even greater enthusiasm, I will welcome anyone who wishes to volunteer to play this new role at his or her institution.

David J. Helfand
Chair, AAS Governance Task Force
Columbia University
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