NASW Board statement on the proposed amendment

The Board of the National Association of Science Writers is responsible for the operation and continued well-being of the organization as a whole. That is why we feel a need to weigh in on the sometimes-rancorous debate now underway over the proposed constitutional amendment regarding officer positions, which will come to a vote in the fall. We as a board are unanimous in our opposition to the amendment.

The board is made up of staff journalists and freelancers, educators and public information officers, as well as people who fill two (or more) of these roles depending on the day and the assignment. We all share deeply held beliefs about the crucial importance of communicating tough-minded, fair, and accurate information about science. We also share a commitment to keeping NASW unified and thriving.

Our opposition to the amendment does not mean that we believe that the current arrangement – which allows all members to serve as board members but permits only journalists to serve as secretary, treasurer, vice-president, and president – is ideal. It is a compromise, the roots of which go back a few decades to an earlier debate that came close to causing a permanent rift in our ranks. But that compromise was made during a different era, and it is clear that we need to re-examine it and determine the wisest way to move forward. The world in which we live today, where it is increasingly uncommon for aspiring science writers to begin their careers as staff members or full-time employees in any role, requires new thinking.

Instead of positioning ourselves for the future, however, this amendment has us staring down the past. It is, in the words of the NASW Constitutional Review Ad Hoc Committee, the wrong answer to the wrong question.

And make no mistake: This amendment could cause irreversible damage. Close to ten percent of journalists who replied to the committee's survey said they would leave NASW if it passed – and since the committee’s report was released, dozens of high-profile journalists have made it clear that they are among those who would depart. Because journalists attend meetings more frequently than non-journalists, and many freelancers attend meetings to network with staff journalists, these departures, as the ad hoc committee noted in its report, would likely result in a larger exodus, creating a ripple effect that could threaten NASW's very existence.

One need only look at the conversation taking place in public forums to see how the tenor of some of these exchanges has already done a disservice to the enterprise of science journalism and science communication generally and to NASW specifically. If we are to thrive as an organization, we cannot be divided into competing camps of "us" versus "them." We must remember that we are all united in our efforts to ensure that fair, accurate, and thought-provoking information about science reaches the general public.

As we rise up to face this and the other challenges that loom for science writers, we want to emphasize that officer positions do not confer any special voting status or privileges. We make decisions as a board, and all of our voices count the same. The secretary does not determine what we discuss at our meetings, the treasurer does not choose how we spend our money -- and while the president does serve as NASW’s public face, she does not make decisions by fiat. We have different roles in our working lives, but our meetings, our discussions, and our actions on behalf of NASW are all dictated by one, shared goal: To serve as a beacon for science writing in all of its forms.

NASW has always relied on its diverse membership to address the full range of issues that affect our field. This case is no different. The amendment will be voted on at the next business meeting, in San Antonio, on October 29, 2016. Members will also have the option of voting electronically by proxy during the two weeks leading up to the business meeting so that those who cannot attend the annual meeting can have a voice in this crucial vote. 

As prompted by the ad hoc committee, the board is continuing its effort to get a pulse of the membership, through a "listening tour" and other means, with the goal of finding the right questions and the best answers.

I am a neuroscientist.  Prior to the mid-1960's the word did not exist.  There was neurology, physiology, anatomy, and biology, but the concept that all of these diverse disciplines could be combined into one cohesive area of science was inconceivable.  My PhD mentor, Theodore Bullock, was one of the scientific pioneers who had the vision to see a future where neuroscience would grow and prosper well beyond what any of these individual specializations could do alone.  He and a small number of other scientists meeting in a modest hotel formed the Society for Neuroscience in 1969.  In 1971 the first annual meeting was held in Washington, DC, drawing about 1300 participants.  Today the annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience are attended by 35,000 people, and the field of neuroscience has blossomed into one of the most vigorous and important areas of biological research today.  I have been a member of NASW for about 10 years; tumultuous and transformative years in scientific publishing.  I joined as a scientist and a science writer, in the spirit of my mentor who believed that combined and working together we are more than the sum of our parts.  Journalism is wonderful and important, but so is writing science books, science blogs, and explaining an institution’s new discoveries to the public.  The root of all unhappiness is the inability to accept change, says the Zen proverb.   

Regarding the proposed amendment to allow non-journalists to hold officer positions, the board stated:

...we want to emphasize that officer positions do not confer any special voting status or privileges. We make decisions as a board, and all of our voices count the same. The secretary does not determine what we discuss at our meetings, the treasurer does not choose how we spend our money -- and while the president does serve as NASW’s public face, she does not make decisions by fiat. We have different roles in our working lives, but our meetings, our discussions, and our actions on behalf of NASW are all dictated by one, shared goal: To serve as a beacon for science writing in all of its forms.

If officers and members have equal powers and privileges, then what harm could come from allowing non-journalists to hold officer positions (aside from irritating some members)? It seems to me that the current rule serves no practical purpose, and is only in place as a nod to journalists as somehow holding higher status in the association and profession.