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Sections provide expertise for AAAS

When AAAS needs an expert, they turn to one of its most valuable resources—its Sections.

Sections are committees representing various scientific disciplines, 24 in total. They range from agriculture to statistics, and are identified by a letter of the alphabet. For example, Section A is Mathematics, Section B represents Physics.

In addition to providing expert advice, Sections select symposium topics for the AAAS Annual Meeting and nominate distinguished members as fellows of AAAS. They’re comparable to the committees of Congress, where the details of legislation get hammered out, AAAS President Barbara Schaal said.

“They’re the group that really deals with subject-specific expertise and helps move issues of concern from the Sections up to the leadership of AAAS,” Schaal said.

At this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., the organization asked Section leaders to list the top three policy issues that concerned them. That feedback will be used to shape AAAS policy and coverage in the organization’s Policy Alert newsletter.

“In biology, there’s a whole bunch of issues that challenge us, such as stem cells and climate change and loss of biodiversity,” said Schaal, a biologist and dean of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “You could see a Section really getting involved in those topics and really bringing it forward so it has a lot more prominence in the association.”

Sections “bring to the table a lot of disciplinary expertise to larger issues,” added Andrew Black, AAAS chief of staff and director of the executive office. “Certainly, we here in the executive office, our office of government relations and other department across AAAS consult with our Section leadership when we need expertise on these particular subject areas.”

Sections date back to the origins of the organization in the years before the Civil War, evolving as new disciplines emerged in the century and a half since. The most recent, Neuroscience (Section V), was added in 1994; the same year, Agriculture (Section O) became Agriculture, Food and Renewable Resources.

“Neuroscience was starting to become its own prominent discipline, and so a group of members got together and petitioned for the creation of this new Section,” Black said. And the increased emphasis on environmental sustainability in recent years spurred the expansion of the Agriculture Section, he said.

The Sections also contribute to AAAS’s multidisciplinary mission, which separates it from many other scientific societies.

“Many of our Sections have great working relationships with one another because of that cross-disciplinary nature,” he said. “There are still intersections between neuroscience and psychology. There are still intersections between social sciences and science policy. There are still intersections between chemistry and physics.”

The Sections currently range in size from a few hundred members to north of 20,000 in the case of the biggest, Biological Sciences (Section G). And they’re getting a boost from AAAS’s new communication and collaboration tool, Trellis.  

“Trellis is a platform whose goal is to make it easier for anyone—or any organization in the STEM community—to create a group of any size or composition for the purposes of collaboration,” said Josh Freeman, AAAS’s senior adviser for multimedia strategies and the platform’s founding manager.

As AAAS continues to reshape itself into a more member-facing organization, Sections are likely to play a bigger role. Currently, only about half the AAAS membership participates in a Section. That’s something Schaal and Freeman hope to change, partly through Trellis.

For instance, science communication in particular is becoming a hot topic, Schaal said.

“A lot of folks are really interested in that—not only for their own career, but to make sure there is an appropriate understanding of science, so our leaders can make decisions based on good scientific evidence,” she said. “I think getting those compelling topics is really important, and I think people will join [a Section].”

Trellis will be rolled out to the 24 Sections in the coming months to aid their ability to conduct Section-related business. “It will be a way for Section leadership to communicate to the Section members, and for Section members to communicate with each other,” said Freeman.

And Trellis won’t be just for Sections to use. In the next three to four months, all AAAS members will be able to connect and collaborate through the MemberCentral Community Trellis group. That will help bring members together to build on those topics of interest.

 “We have to have [Section] programming that’s really compelling for folks. Some of the things that we’ve talked about as we go through this transition are really exciting and would really get people interested,” Schaal said.

*Note: AAAS members can join up to three Sections. If you haven't selected your Sections or would like to update your Section affiliations, please login to MemberCentral, locate the Membership tab in the homepage navigation menu, select/click Manage Membership from the Membership pulldown. From the Manage Membership page, locate the Update Section Affilations red button. Click on the button—this will open a new window and allow you to update your Section affiliations.