3 March 2015

From the Executive Office

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel, American Astronomical Society (AAS)

May the Task Force Be With You

Every day I come into the AAS Executive Office, I am amazed at the high level of dedication and even devotion of our staff members. We get an awful lot done with a very small staff. Currently we have 24 employees and contractors accomplishing all the work of the Executive Office. This may seem like a lot to those of you in an average astronomy or physics department or small research group, but other organizations similar in size and scope to the AAS have two or even three times as many staff members. We are pretty darned efficient.

We have focused much effort in recent years on achieving this efficiency, while also improving our communication and teamwork, and those efforts are ongoing and more important than ever. Somehow, we’re never done improving — and that’s a good thing!

As we take on more activities, we must become more efficient or must hire more people. But we cannot continue hiring staff indefinitely, as with additional staff members comes the responsibility to ensure that you can pay them and provide them benefits over time. Upsizing without due diligence can lead to downsizing when you least expect it, and this is avoidable with careful planning. We also don’t have an infinite amount of revenue to offset increasing staff costs; the year-on-year increases in health care are more than enough to have to handle.

Additionally, the AAS maintains an effort to not draw proceeds from our journals to fund ongoing Society expenses. This has been a prudent policy ever since we took on the publication of the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) in the early 1970s, though it places extreme challenges on the organization financially. The other organizations I referred to above grew their staffs by drawing funds from their revenue-producing journals to cover the additional expense, and they correspondingly increased their subscription rates, author charges, or both. But becoming overly dependent on the revenues from journals puts the Society, the staff, and the organization’s long-term goals at risk. The AAS has avoided that risk in large part by not drawing the funds in the first place and adding staff only when absolutely necessary to meet our goals. The AAS Council has to decide whether to continue adhering to this strict principle or to deviate from it. Any change will be made prudently and with much analysis and discussion of the benefits and risks. We have great volunteer leaders!

How does all this impact our members? Well, we have had to maintain relatively high individual dues levels and to rely on registration and exhibitor fees to fully cover the costs of our meetings, including maintaining the staff necessary to organize the meetings themselves. We prioritize our expenditures at our meetings around enabling scientific communication. Accordingly, we are willing to incur the costs of quality audiovisual equipment and a centralized speaker-ready system (currently the best in the industry, thanks to our long-term contractor), but we won’t spend money on “freebies” for registrants. As someone once said, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and it is equally true that there is no such thing as a free registration bag or logo item. Everything has a cost. Prioritizing what we spend money on by focusing on what we want to accomplish — in other words, setting goals — helps us make prudent logistical and management decisions about our conferences. This even touches how our meetings are organized, how long the sessions are, how many speakers to include in each session, and numerous other things. Our meetings are complex, and each part touches all the other parts.

This complexity is one reason I am so happy that Stephen Unwin, an AAS Council member and experienced conference organizer himself, proposed to lead a meetings task force to take a long, careful look at how we organize our meetings, understand why we have made the choices we have made, and consider ways to make the meetings better able to achieve our goals — in other words, to make sure the meetings are serving the purposes the Council thinks they should. The task force will meet throughout 2015 and deliver a report to the Council next January at our meeting in Florida (I am told I have to say it’s in Kissimmee, not Orlando, but given the fuzzy township boundaries in Florida — think swamps — I suspect either will work). This task force is exactly why we have volunteer leaders: to set expectations and to review our programs from time to time to make sure that what we do is meeting those expectations. Thanks to the Council for approving the task force and for Stephen for stepping up to the plate to lead the effort. Joel Parriott, our Deputy Executive Officer, will work with other AAS staff to help the task force do its work.

January saw the rollout of another task force's recommendations. The Journals Future Task Force met throughout 2014 to carefully consider the challenges faced by ApJ and the Astronomical Journal and to formulate changes likely to improve and strengthen these publications. The Council received the task force recommendations at our Seattle meeting and approved them, with the knowledge that some details need to be determined prior to moving forward. They posted a general summary online, along with a form to collect comments and suggestions, and established a transition team to figure out the specifics and to begin the process of implementing them. The transition team meets for the first time in March and includes the editors in chief, members of the task force, representatives from our leadership, and some outside voices as well. Knowing that everyone shares the common goal of successful journals for the Society, I know that the final result — whatever it might be — will be something that will enable us to continue to achieve our mission to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the universe. I ask everyone to bear with us as all of these dedicated groups work collaboratively to manage our journals for the betterment of our discipline and our Society. Change may be hard, but it can be enormously positive and is, in some way, necessary in the fast-paced world we now find ourselves in.

The first scholarly journal was published 350 years ago. Since then, scholarly publishing has grown and grown, enabling our understanding of the world around us to grow and expand, enabling improvements in the quality of life, and saving countless lives. Despite the changes in the way we publish, the mandates that governments may dictate, or laws that may be passed, scholarly publishing is here to stay as it is the best way to move our combined human knowledge forward. Scholarly meetings, likewise, will be around until our information technology becomes truly immersive, perhaps not too far off. In addition to these two activities, the Society helps astronomers in many other ways, including providing a community of colleagues passionate about understanding the universe we live in. I deeply enjoy working on your behalf to make the Society operate well now, to build and change for the future, and to meet your expectations and those of our elected leaders. Feel free to drop me a line with your opinions or thoughts at any time; I value them and the time you may take to send them in. They help us improve, and that is important.