Scientific and medical societies have been in existence for hundreds of years. At their best, they foster communication, collaboration, education and outreach. At their worst, they are slow moving exclusionary clubs that oppress outsider and new ideas. Virtually every young scientist in the US is a member of at least a few societies, but we rarely give thought to what are our ethical responsibilities as a member and representative of this society.  This is not just an oversight. It’s also a reason science funding is a abysmal and labs are closing.

The American Medical Association arguably is the standard bearer of medical and scientific societies and has proved itself to be responsive to current health care crisis, members and ethical quandaries. The fact that the AMA Code of Conduct isn’t adopted by other medical societies or, any scientific societies is baffling. If you go to the AMA website, their Code of Conduct is impossible to miss. It’s not just visible, it’s comprehensive. Where some societies have only recently started notifying members that both security and Title IX representatives will be onsite for meetings to ensure a safe environment, the AMA breaks down a comprehensive list of ethical standards from patient privacy, to sharing public opinions on financing of health care and maintaining professional conduct.

Rather than hamstringing the AMA’s leadership, this code of conduct promotes the association’s engagement in the most critical health and safety issues we face. The leadership is bold, they have local leadership in each state and include trainees in their organization. Compare this the worlds larges scientific society, AAAS which issued a paltry four policy statements in 2015 on behalf of it’s members. In a year of Zika, Ebola, stem cell chaos, CRISPR crisis, funding shortfalls, NIH failures to improve funding, retention and recruitment of women and minorities in science and there are four statements from AAAS? See picture below for how that looks. It’s hard to blame a public for their apathy about science education, funding and research when scientists are doing such a poor job adding to the national and international dialogues on the issues people care about.

This doesn’t all lay at the doorstep of AAAS. Most scientist belong to several scientific societies. I belong to three: Society for Neuroscience, American Heart Association and American Socieity for Cell Biology. All of them have outstanding national meetings that I regularly attend and top tier journals, but they are also woefully unprepared and perhaps even unwilling to jump into the business of talking about science in the daily lives of the public. Until these societies step into the void and start making some policy statement and laying down some codes of conduct, it will be impossible to push, pull, carry, drag, prod or cajole the public into investing in NIH, NSF and other STEM resources.

Don’t just get annoyed and drop your membership, folks.  Here’s some Fighty Squirrel thoughts on what we can do better without investing another dime in membership fees.

1) Demand Your Society Adopt a Code of Conduct and Professionalism. Just today I wrote my favorite Society (Society for Neuroscience) putting forth three proposals:

  • All local, national and paid scientists serving on behalf of the Society disclose potential conflicts of interest with privately held businesses.
  • All local, national and paid scientists serving on behalf of the Society disclose any history of scientific fraud, plagiarism or ethical violations resulting in retraction of published work.
  • All local national and paid scientists serving on behalf of the Society disclose any history of discrimination, harassment including Title IX violations that resulted in sanctions or reprimands.

2) Require All Officials Running for Elected Posts to Make a Policy Statement. I just voted in three elections for scientific societies and nowhere were candidates asked what they thought were the urgent issues in funding, awareness and advocacy. I was voting on who had the best publication, outreach and training record. We need brave, outspoken thoughtful science champions, not grant writers in these public facing posts.

3) Make Damn Some Policy Statements and Roll Out the PR Machine. I want to see the president of my society all over the place. CNN, ABC, The New York Times, TMZ. Just kidding. Not TMZ. These men and women are smart AF, let’s start empowering them to say something on our behalf other than, ‘I’m happy to welcome you to this year’s annual meeting”.

4) Meet, Greet, Repeat. You’re having an annual meeting. Time to break out the Presidents, Treasurers and whatnots and have them do the grip and grin. Get on Twitter. And on Reddit. Do an AMA (that’s Ask Me Anything). Chat up science and scientists. Tell us what you’re excited about. You’re our cheerleaders in chief. Get on that.

5) Put Some Feet on Coals. Those failures to promote, retain and fund women and minorities? Yeah….put some feet on the coals, leaders. If NIH isn’t getting it done, be brave and call that spit out. I’m almost sure you won’t lose all your funding and get audited.

I’m sure you all have some ideas on what an active vibrant society you are proud to be a member of looks like. Share it. 

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