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Thursday, 25 June 2009

FEATURE: The future of the ABSW

Sometime during the World Conference of Science Journalists, the ABSW chair will pass from Ted Nield to myself. Those who are finely attuned to the constitutional details of our association will be aware that chair of the ABSW is neither passed on, nor handed over, but is elected by our membership after the AGM in January. In the absence of nominations at our AGM earlier this year, Ted felt compelled to remain in office - even though this was for an unconstitutional three plus years.

Now, however, Ted feels that it is time to stand down as chair and the committee has agreed. As with previous chairs, he will join the committee to keep an eye on the new chair. I shall stand for election next January in the normal way but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Ted for his work and commitment to the ABSW. His tenure will be particularly remembered for its vision and leadership with regards to the forthcoming World Conference.

On June 29th we will hold a special meeting for members to debate how the ABSW should operate and what our priorities will be over the next few years. This discussion will not only serve to re-invigorate the association but also to give your un-elected chair a mandate for the future. As of June 15th, more than 45 members are planning to attend our meeting, co-chaired by our President Colin Blakemore at the Dana Centre in South Kensington. An online survey is also heading your way, so we can gather opinions and ideas from everyone.

Let me start by saying that these are difficult times. Over the years we have seen a consistent decline in sponsorship and this has eroded the association’s finances. It is with profound regret that our much-loved administrator, Barbie Drillsma, has been offered redundancy. It is impossible to express sufficient gratitude for Barbie’s commitment to the association over the decades. Thank you Barbie. And thank you for being such a rock, and so utterly professional, about every aspect of these unfortunate changes.

As the saying goes, through crisis comes opportunity. If we are smart, we can keep the association relevant and useful. Barbie’s departure demands that we focus on providing the continuity and networking that she provided for us. There are also a number of organisational challenges that we will need to figure out. I hope members will bear with us while we deal with all the changes, and, inevitably, make mistakes.

One of our priorities is to operate far more efficiently using the website as well as other online tools and services. Mike Nagle is currently redesigning the website, which should allow us to serve our membership better and ultimately allow members to administer their own memberships, pay their dues online, and promote themselves on our website. Mike outlined these changes in a previous edition of the TSR. Increasingly the committee is exploiting online tools to organise meetings, to discuss and draft documents and to communicate with members. This electronic trend is likely to continue.

Our AGM this year made it clear that one of our priorities ought to be the re-establishment of our awards. At our last AGM, there was a lot of discussion about this. To summarise the points made: large-scale sponsorship for big awards has become harder to arrange, indeed impossible since 2006 after the loss of our previous sponsor; we cannot rely on sponsorship for our awards. If we do, we will find that in some years awards cannot be run; members say they don’t care about big cash prizes, or fancy awards ceremonies, they wish their professional association to recognise good work and that is enough in itself.

Given the above, it seems that we need to establish a way to administer some kind of awards at very low cost, even in the absence of sponsorship. So this year, with the support of the committee, we trialled a new electronic tool for administering a Best Newcomer prize. (The winner of this award will be announced during the World Conference in June.) The success of this method means we can now contemplate running a limited number of awards of low cash value in 2010 in the absence of a sponsor and without an event.

We would, however, need to charge a small fee for processing applications and organising the judging. This would be in line with the charges made by other associations such as ours for unsponsored awards. The awards would also need help from members to organise. For example, someone would need to arrange a judging day, and do a bit of administration. Of course, if sponsorship is secured, our awards could be scaled up accordingly. But I believe that it is possible to run basic awards in the absence of sponsorship and that we should try to set ourselves up to do so.

My priorities for the association are to promote a lively and revitalised series of events for members comprising seminars, training, lunches and trips, as well as debates and perhaps an annual lecture or sponsored dinner. I’d also like us to republish So You Want To Be a Science Writer, as well as figure out a way to make progress on re-establishing bursaries. I’m also very keen to use the power of our association to offer more services to members. For example we recently offered members subscription to the headline and caption-writing service Phrasefinder, on the basis of a group subscription. There may be other examples of this kind of thing that we are able to help with by negotiating similar deals, from cut-price software to reduced insurance rates.

I encourage people to offer suggestions for how we might better serve our members. [Note that you can do this via our member survey -Ed] In particular, I’d encourage you to volunteer to help organise the things that you would like to see happen. Bear in mind that we will always be richer in ideas than we are in resources. So much of what happens will be down to your commitment and involvement with us. We are lucky to have a particularly active group of members on the committee at the moment who I am greatly looking forward to working with.

In looking for projects that we might develop, the best ideas will be those that need a small seed of input to generate something of broader and lasting value. Please think creatively about how we should operate, and consider our limited financial but rich intellectual resources. The goal is to regenerate the ABSW - to make it more relevant for members and create an association that is adapted for the future.

Natasha Loder
Incoming Chair, ABSW