September 20, 2011

Dear AIBS Members:

James Collins

I am writing to you as the President of AIBS, on behalf of the AIBS Board of Directors and Long Range Planning Committee, about an important proposal that the Board will bring to you very soon. I will begin by reviewing some of AIBS's history, move on to a snapshot view of AIBS now that is part of a larger research project assessing the organization, and then outline some of the current Board's thoughts for AIBS's future. The next step from here is engaging you in this discussion.



In 1946, 27 scientific societies met because they saw a need for a single organization that would unify biology across its great diversity. That need was met in 1947 by merging two general biology societies to create the "American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS)".1 Eleven scientific societies were charter organizational members supporting a mission summarized in the AIBS Constitution:

The purposes of the Institute shall be the advancement of the biological sciences and their applications to human welfare, and to foster and encourage research and education in the biological sciences, including the medical, environmental, and agricultural sciences. To serve these purposes, the Institute will assist societies, other organizations, and biologists in such matters of common concern as can be dealt with more effectively by united action; hold and sponsor scientific meetings; cooperate with local, national, and international organizations concerned with the biological sciences; provide a voice for biologists in the public forum; promote unity and effectiveness of effort among all those who are devoting themselves to the biological sciences and their applications; and foster the relations of the biological sciences to other sciences, to the arts and industries, and to the public good.2

From this mission has come the AIBS of today, with offices in Washington D.C. and Virginia, and a staff of almost 40, with three groups involved in its governance:

  • A Board of Directors (BOD).
  • Scientific societies as member societies and organizations (MSOs); originally, each MSO held a seat on the BOD. As the number of MSOs grew, a separate governance advisory body, the Council of Representatives, was created and it elected representatives to BOD seats.
  • Individual members of AIBS who also elect BOD representatives.

The latest major planning session for AIBS with its membership was the 1999 Presidents' Summit,3 convened by AIBS for the presidents of all of our member societies and organizations. Participants affirmed the role of AIBS in serving biology by bringing biologists together--AIBS was an institution for unifying the biological sciences around a common mission. It is worth visiting a few details of this meeting as these same points are at the heart of the current Board's recommendations to you.

Gregory J. Anderson was AIBS President at the time and he "expressed his hope that this Summit will be the historic occasion that marks the turning point in the history of our collective action as biologists." Thomas Lovejoy, an AIBS Past President, told the group that "it is time--indeed, that time is overdue--to get it together as a profession and as society as a whole." The way to accomplish that, he said, was to establish "one major science goal that is carried out by lots of individual scientists contributing to the overall exercise," a sentiment echoed repeatedly by participants during the remainder of the meeting. "We have to move away from not thinking big enough and look forward to the millennium of biology," Lovejoy said. "It is already historic that we are meeting here. The issue is whether it is going to be significant." The Summit produced eleven initiatives -- the so called "Airlie Accords," for the location of the Summit at a Virginia conference center -- for collective action, including expanding and funding the AIBS Public Policy Office, which remains an influential voice for biology before the U.S. Congress and many federal, state, and private agencies.

Charles Gomer, President of the American Society for Photobiology (ASP), also attended the 1999 Summit. Afterwards, he told ASP members that "An added bonus of attending this Summit, which I particularly enjoyed, was having time to talk with presidents of other societies with demographics comparable to those of ASP. As you would suspect, we all seem to be grappling with similar issues and challenges. High on the list of topics during these informal discussions were: rapid movement of society journals into electronic publishing, maintaining and/or replenishing membership ranks, and developing and implementing strategic plans".4 These remarks likely sound familiar because they are as meaningful today as they were more than a decade ago. The same issues are among those that provoked the current AIBS Board to start a process for understanding what our Institute is now, and what it might become in the future.

This event did much to shape the AIBS of today. Current AIBS activities include public policy advocacy and analysis; education and public programs; media communications; scientific peer advisory and review services to government agencies and other clients; and publishing the journal BioScience and the education website Our roster of organizational members has increased since 1999, from 52 to 160, while our membership of individuals has decreased, as you will read more about in the following paragraphs.

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In 2010, the BOD began a new long range planning exercise with three aims: evaluate the Institute's past performance in order to assess AIBS's future role as an organization representing biology; focus the Institute's efforts in effective and sustainable activities; and evaluate how AIBS serves the biological sciences through its MSOs and individual members.

Over the past year we collected and analyzed data about AIBS's membership, surveyed individual biologists and biological organizations, and spoke with the leaders of key organizations that influence our discipline. A series of papers in BioScience will soon summarize this research. One point came through clearly, however: changes in AIBS's governance would improve the organization's ability to act to fulfill the mission of fostering united action as envisioned in our founding constitution. At the start of the century of biology it is time to reimagine what it will take to make AIBS a forum for integrating the life sciences in the 21st century. The BOD is collaborating with the Long Range Planning Committee to do just that.

Three things are happening across the biological sciences right now. First, leading research areas and questions are changing rapidly; for example, 10 years ago sustainability and systems biology were only just emerging while today they fill the pages of our journals and occupy time in our classes. Second, interdisciplinary problems are changing how we conduct research and educate our students. Finally, the new questions and approaches require that we manage the life sciences at four year colleges, community colleges, and universities, research institutes, funding organizations, businesses, and scientific societies differently than we did 10 years ago. AIBS must keep pace.

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As a step along our path to the future the BOD is proposing to the members revisions in how AIBS is governed with three aims:

    i) have our leadership encompass a greater representation of all of biology,

    ii) make strategic appointments to the Board, and

    iii) extend the terms of leadership positions to make it possible to initiate and sustain initiatives over multiple years.

AIBS's leadership and advisory bodies are central to our success. The leadership provides guidance for fulfilling the mission, ensures efficient use of resources, oversees our finances, and generally supports AIBS's development.5 The BOD has concluded that the current subdisciplinary distribution of AIBS's MSO leaders, individual members, and the BOD does not reflect adequately what AIBS was meant to be; namely, an organization representing the full scope of biology. Three groups lead AIBS and here is a snapshot of their participants across biology's subdisciplines:

Officers of AIBS MSO'sIndividual MembersBoard Members (data from the last 12 years)
Disciplinary Focus* Ecology (46%);
Evolution (33%);
Systematics/ Taxonomy (26%);
Conservation Biology (25%);
Botany (25%);
Environmental Biology (21%)
Ecology (56%);
Environmental Biology (32%);
Conservation Biology (32%);
Science Education (26%);
Evolution or Evolutionary Biology (26%);
Botany (21%);
Ecology (67%);
Evolution (41%);
Botany (34%);
Environmental science (28%);
Conservation science (26%)

* MSO Leaders and individual members self selected disciplinary focus field from a checklist of 50 potential fields. Each individual on average selected 4.4 and 5.3 categories respectively.
* To report disciplinary focus for past board members, categories were selected from the same list as MSO leaders and institutional members by AIBS staff members. An average of 3.5 fields were selected per person based on their web page descriptions of their research. Only 27 of the 50 fields were selected at all.

The representation of the life sciences reflected in these data hampers our ability to fulfill our mission. The BOD is recommending that we act to enrich AIBS by enhancing the representation of areas such as cellular and molecular biology, development, and genetics along with emerging areas including synthetic biology and computational biology. For the same reasons, the BOD wishes also to ensure that the diversity of the governing body of AIBS from one year to the next is maintained with respect to skills, work setting, career stage, and other professional factors that may be brought to the Institute to maximize opportunities for AIBS to benefit from an inclusive range of human talents.

As is the case for many scientific societies, individual memberships in AIBS have declined for 40 years from a peak of 15,000 members in 1970 to 2,300 today. Declining individual memberships means that leaders are chosen from a group less and less representative of today's life sciences. But in contrast to most scientific organizations, AIBS also has societies as members, and the number of MSOs has increased from 61 adherent and affiliate societies in 1975 to today's count of almost 160 member organizations representing more than 250,000 individual biologists. Clearly there is a strong perception by the leaders and members of scientific societies and organizations that AIBS is playing an important role. How, the BOD asked, should we respond to the 21st century reality of declining individual memberships, which is not unique to our Institute, at the same time that the number of societal members in AIBS is increasing, which places us in a unique position among biological organizations?

As a first step in responding to this challenge, AIBS's leaders believe that we will be more effective at observing, informing, and advising on changes in biology now and in the future if AIBS is more representative of the diversity of the community it was designed to bring together. We will propose revisions to our Constitution that will allow AIBS to broaden its representation. In particular, we must empower the BOD to develop and carry through new initiatives that will strengthen the biological sciences by increasing the number of BOD seats, modifying the mechanisms by which candidates are selected, and allowing presidents to serve longer terms with reelection as an option to increase the stability of the board.

We will propose the following governance changes beginning with the 2012 elections:

Click here to see the full text of the AIBS Constitution with proposed changes.

BOD FeatureCurrentProposed Change
Number of individuals1314-18
President's termPresident serves one year each as President-Elect, President, and Past-PresidentPresident-Elect and Past-President positions eliminated. President serves a two-year term as President and is eligible for re-election to subsequent terms, as is a new Vice-President position that serves with President, on a staggered term.
Officers and Executive Committee Officers: President, Past President, President Elect, Secretary, Treasurer. Executive Committee: Officers. Officers: President, Vice- President, Secretary, Treasurer. Executive Committee: Officers + one other member of the Board, selected by the Board each year.
Officer electionsNominating committee nominates candidates -- including any nominees put forward by the individual membership -- then those candidates are voted on by individual members.Nominating committee (two members from Board-elected seats, one from Council-elected seats, one from Individual-membership-elected seats) nominates candidates -- including any candidates put forward by the Council or the individual membership -- then those candidates are voted on by the BOD
Additional Seats on BOD elected by BODNone4 - 8
Seats on BOD elected by Council of MSO Representatives44
Seats on board elected by individual members42

Click here to see the full text of the AIBS Constitution with proposed changes.

We are convinced that the governance changes that we are recommending will keep AIBS moving along a path that will make for a more effective organization representing all of us as we move ahead in this century of biology. We hope that you agree.

If you have comments or questions about these changes, we have set up an open comment period from September 19-October 5 in which we will gather feedback from the membership to report back to the Board of Directors. Feedback may be submitted through the following two mechanisms:

  • We have set up an online form for comments to be submitted electronically. To share your comments using the form, click here.
  • Alternatively, we are hosting two web based events. One will take place September 27 at 2:00 PM EDT, the other at September 29 at 1:00 PM EDT.

I look forward to continuing this conversation about AIBS's future in the months and years ahead.


James P. Collins
President, AIBS, and for the AIBS Board of Directors and Long Range Planning Committee

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1. DiSilvestro, Roger L. "The first half century: a history of AIBS." BioScience 47:644.
2. AIBS Constitution:
3. 1999 AIBS Presidents Summit:
4. Charles Gomer. President of the American Society for Photobiology (ASP), 1999. AIBS Presidents Summit.
5. BoardSource. Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.

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