AAAS Transformation Initiative Moves Full Steam Ahead

Through a long-range, strategic initiative, AAAS is becoming a more member-focused, digitally oriented organization that will thrive throughout the 21st century.
Trellis, the scientific community's new communications platform, will debut in 2015. | AAAS

[The following article appeared in the 19 December 2014 edition of Science, as part of the AAAS News & Notes column]

By Alan I. Leshner, AAAS Chief Executive Officer and Executive Publisher of Science, and Phillip A. Sharp, Chair of the AAAS Board, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Faculty Member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Department of Biology.

Every strong organization should sit back every 10 years and reflect on where it is, where it's going, and how it can best serve its constituents in the future. The world is changing, and as "the voice of science," we at AAAS want to make sure that the organization is maximizing its usefulness to the scientific community and the broader society.

AAAS is in excellent shape from every perspective, making this an ideal time to look forward to the next decade and beyond. Over the past three years, we have surveyed our members, clients, readers, and others, and it has become clear that the next iteration of AAAS must do two things: It must adopt a "digital first" mindset to become a multimedia, multiplatform science communication enterprise, rather than a print-centric publisher, and it must listen to its members and undertake activities that better serve their needs.

The AAAS Transformation Initiative, announced last spring, has completed its initial planning goals, and we are now moving ahead with strong momentum. Further, the AAAS Board has put funding in place to enable this transformation to be carried out over the next five years, and results will start becoming outwardly visible within months.

The new, online-only, open-access journal Science Advances will debut in February, significantly increasing the volume of high-quality research published by AAAS. Spanning science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences, the new digital publication will be a primary focus for new publisher Kent Anderson, who joined AAAS last month, and Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt.

All of the Science journals are also undergoing a complete digital reorganization, under the direction of Robert Covey, in the newly created position of digital media officer, and McNutt. The process involves a far-reaching redesign of the Science websites and other changes to ensure that all content is created with the Web foremost in mind.

AAAS is also now beta-testing a new science communication platform, Trellis, which will become available to the scientific community within the coming year. This novel online networking platform will better enable participants to connect across disciplines, affiliations, and geographies to communicate and work together more effectively. Areas of activity will include discipline-crossing topics such as food, water, and energy; "meta-issues" affecting the lives of scientists more broadly; or newly emerging areas of research.

On the membership front, work is under way to expand AAAS membership by threefold, starting with scientists in both the academic and private sectors, and eventually reaching out to the general science-interested public. Under the direction of a Chief Membership Officer to be hired in the coming months, the association is marshaling its considerable resources in areas where members have told us they would like more support and involvement, including advocacy, networking, career support, and volunteering.

A key part of AAAS's mission involves advocating on Capitol Hill and at the state level for sustainable funding for R&D and the responsible use of science in policy. Staff are developing mechanisms to give members many more opportunities to join AAAS in these efforts to speak up for science. For example, a members-only website, to be launched in 2015, will allow members to advocate for research funding and policies that impact the research community. It will provide detailed analyses of S&T legislation, legislative alerts about pending votes or amendments of concern, and mechanisms for contacting policy-makers.

Drawing from expertise across the Association, AAAS is ramping up and better integrating its offerings for scientists at all stages of their careers. The demand for these resources is high: A free AAAS webinar called "Thinking Outside the Lab" drew over 6,000 registrants, and the career planning tool called myIDP has 68,000 registered users. Future offerings will include more career-related webinars, a specialized career portal, and networking opportunities for members at local meetings as well as the AAAS Annual Meeting.

This is a time of great creativity and problem-solving at AAAS. It is also the beginning of a fundamental culture shift within the organization, to wholeheartedly embrace a digital-first, member-focused approach. AAAS culture must also become more amenable to innovation, which we are encouraging by setting up a small office to explore and develop new business concepts and other kinds of partnerships.

The Transformation Initiative and the institutional culture change that drives it will be greatly facilitated by the arrival of Rush D. Holt, Ph.D., as AAAS's new chief executive officer. Holt, who was a practicing research physicist and teacher before serving eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, will join AAAS this coming February. He will be the ideal next staff leader for the association because of his broad understanding of science and of the issues relating science and the rest of society.