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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

ABSW: Calm sea, prosperous voyage...

ABSW Chair, Ted Nield, reflects on a difficult few years before the mast.

I like to think that there is nobody on this Earth less eager than I to be a leader of men (and less of women). Yet being Chair of professional organisations is a fate that has befallen me more than once, and in a familiar pattern. It has always happened by accident, usually because I had been sturdy lieutenant to a captain who, for one reason or another, has found it necessary to walk the plank. The organisation has always been on the cusp of change. And after the subsequent years of hard labour, the sunlit uplands open out - just in time for me to hand over to someone else.

I became ABSW Chair when Toby Murcott was forced to stand down through ill-health, and served for almost a year in his place before beginning my elected three years at the following AGM. At that time we had lost our core funding, and had instead been riding the turnover on various activities that would soon fall away. The bursary scheme for science writing students, funded by the Wellcome Trust, fell foul of a policy change. Then, after two years on my watch, Syngenta pulled out as sponsors of the ABSW Awards. It was an early sign that bad economic times lay just around the corner.

As turnover fell, the absence of core funding, and the fact that over the years we have not increased membership dues in line with inflation, threw our financial difficulties into sharp relief. Unless we cut costs we would fold, possibly within a year. At the 2008 AGM, our President, Professor Colin Blakemore, told us that the ABSW had a “whiff of death” about it. He was of course doing his duty, though his olfactory organs were not detecting anything we had not already scented ourselves. If anything, we had perhaps grown used to the stench.

My preoccupation, which had hitherto been to keep The Science Reporter coming out every two months, quickly shifted to paring down costs, and running the briefings in a way that continued to engage our membership while remaining on the right side of the balance sheet. I secured a year’s sponsorship from The Geological Society, introduced modest charges, and made people buy their own booze. We transferred everything online - which at least provided one opportunity to connect more effectively with young members, that crucial group without whom all collectives are doomed.

The struggle has, of course, been worth it. Although fitful, the past three years has seen us establish the ABSW's first regional group (only to see it fold when Laura Fogg was promoted and moved elsewhere by the BBC. We will do it again, and see it last). And under the auspices of the World Federation of Science Journalists, we entered into a twinning arrangement with the Ugandan Science Journalists’ Association.

In 2008, the clouds began to lift as we won the right to host the World Conference of Science Journalists in London. Membership remained buoyant, especially among young science writers, many of whom responded magnificently to my call to take an active part in the Executive Committee (EC), bringing an infusion of new blood that has been a wonderful tonic. To complete my joy, Natasha Loder of The Economist, with whom I served with when I first got involved with the EC, has stepped forward to take over as Chair this summer.

Such handovers are best done gradually, and the process has already begun. Natasha will take the reins formally at the World Conference, allowing me to bow out a little before time (and sparing me the embarrassment of having been Chair for an unconstitutionally long period). She will then stand at the next AGM, together with those of the current EC who wish to stay, and any more who wish to join.

Thanks to the vigorous activity of your now revitalised EC, we shall soon have a long-awaited new website, and a new set of briefings, hosted by our new sponsors the Royal College of Surgeons. Thanks to Natasha and Sunny Bains, we will have a modest set of Awards at the WCSJ this year, keeping the brand alive. And thanks to Sunny, Richard Hollingham, Mun-Keat Looi and others, you are now reading the TSR newsletter that marks the maturing of our long struggle to transfer activities online.

Natasha knows that much needs to be done if we are to capitalise on the revitalising boost of this year's WCSJ, and changes will need to be radical. But I think I leave at a time when the ABSW can be said to be past its crisis and on the road to recovery. For helping that to happen, I thank all those who have served on the EC during my Chairmanship. Without wishing to be invidious I would like to single out for special thanks Martin Ince, Treasurer, and of course Barbie Drillsma, Administrator. We also owe a huge debt (though not literally) to John Gagg, Finance Director of the British Science Association, for his financial guidance. Finally, without Julie Clayton and Pallab Ghosh, the WCSJ would never have come to our capital city. Thank you all.

Ted Nield
Chair, ABSW