Monday, March 30, 2015

Interesting ideas from the ACS Council at the Denver National Meeting: no elevator clauses, National Meetings "a la carte"

Pete Bonk is a Councilor from the Rhode Island section of the ACS and a friend of the blog. He wrote up some of his thoughts on this last ACS National Meeting in Denver and I thought it was worth discussion:
...Council was livened up with an advisory vote of the Council to the Board, requesting that some of the built in escalator clauses for raising dues and meeting registration costs be held back.   I took an interesting turn as the financial health of the national meetings was discussed.  I think there is some truth that in the current economic environment salaries do not go up even in line with the CPI; the flat starting salaries and actual declines in salary give cred to that.  The  dues raise by $4 was a symptom of a larger lack of perceived value of ACS membership by industry members, who now are about the same percentage as academic members.

The truth- evident to all, if not acknowledged- is not that a $4 increase in dues is not going to break anyone- clearly it is not. But it was a nice departure point to highlight the industry problem ACS has, and that recent actions, while welcome, have not stemmed the hemorrhaging.  The true extent of the problem is obscured by the changed ACS membership requirements allowing HS chem teachers and others to join (to which I heartily agree), but also the drive to rope in new ACS members (at cut rate dues I might add) in greener pastures overseas, in India and China mainly, but also in old Europe of UK Germany etc. Remove these adjustments and my guess is ACS membership would be in the 140Ks instead of 158K.

As a way to create better value for the 93% of ACS members that do not attend the national meeting and raise some significant $$ from the meeting content  that the army of volunteer symposia chairs  and their speakers have created, I was able to suggest my "ACS Meeting A La Carte" idea to the full Council - in about 90 seconds no less, an idea that I have been hounding people about since the last Denver meeting in August 2011.  Basically prime top level symposia from Divisions should be turned into live webinars that an ACS member stuck in Debuque, Des Moines, Detroit, etc. could participate in for a dirt cheap price of say $10-20 per half day symposia.

Being generous and assuming 160K ACS members and 10% at the meetings, that still leaves 144K members that currently get zero benefit from all the effort that goes into organizing a meeting. If only 10% of those 144K stay at members bought $20 of symposia that is still 14400 X $20 = $288K.  Basically the ACS needs to sell the radio and tv rights to "the game" for those that can't make it to the stadium: the hard work of creating the content has already been done.  This may finally get some traction.
I think Pete's idea is a good one, although I do wonder if the audio/visual broadcast requirements would be pretty high. Convention center WiFi is notoriously slow and I would think that there would be considerable technical challenges. I would be concerned that the revenue would not match the capital outlay. That said, I certainly would be willing to plunk down $50 of my own money to watch live broadcasts of technical presentations of new science in my field.

Also, I am bothered by the seeming continual gaming of ACS membership stats. If the numbers of industrial/academic members who are employed in the United States are falling (and I do not know if they are or are not), then I would think this should be something that should be addressed and talked about. It won't happen in C&EN - so I guess it needs to happen here. 


  1. I sense some defensive citadel mentality in the meeting notes. An organization that feels the need to game membership numbers doesn't have a membership problem. It has a what-is-the-point problem. If new membership needs to be marketed in and old membership lost patience and sense of benefit then the Society as such became irrelevant to the members and self-serving to the brass.

    Tweaks like the broadcast proposal are nice and would have some value if enacted 10-15 years ago. Also, ACS is not the Guardian of Knowledge is used to be since most content can be found somewhere else anyway. Anyone, member or not, can record his own seminar and post it on YouTube or wherever, or broadcast it live from a smartphone. The broadcast would lack the ACS blessing and that matters only if the organization remains relevant. Right now it is headed toward the same horizon as printed newspapers. Needed by few in a rapidly aging population.

  2. If only the ACS could convince academia that adjucts needed to attend these meetings to stay relevant. Problem solved.

    1. This is the thing. What does ACS do to impart relevancy?

      Does ACS sponsor content creation? Almost none, just content management.
      Does ACS offer exclusive content? Officially yes, actually....
      Does ACS manage member's reputation? Very little.
      Does ACS sponsor members in need to attend meetings for member's benefit? Not beyond students. Adjuncts are often in more dire need than students.

      I tried to compare how ACS addresses these issues to more dynamic associations, like AIChE, RCS, or IChemE. I can't find many positives for ACS.

  3. There's no technical barrier preventing webcasting these talks - it's done at investor conferences all the time in the exact same facilities.

  4. So, he notes that ACS charges increase without providing services, then he suggests a service for which they can charge us more? How about bundling a symposium or two in with the 'service' we already paid for?

    1. You do get the service (ACS Presentations on Demand), but you get it about 6 months? after the fact. (Dunno what the time frame is between recording and publication.)

    2. bad wolf: The "value proposition" for industrial members (now at about the same % as academic members, a dangerous level if you ask me) has been getting increasing awareness and discussion of late. Yes, talk is cheap, but the problem is fully acknowledged by most. Solutions are harder to come by, and the ACS does move and change slowly. See below about organizations being at cross purposes with the interests of members. I also suggested that the recent non-renewed members be aggressively approached to be part of the Salary Survey. I suspect the inclusion of those will dispel some of the sunshine being bandied about. I take no pleasure in that, but let's work with realistic, meaningful data. A 17% non renewal rate, even if you subtract a few points for the recently deceased, is telling you something about your organization and its perceived value.

  5. Dan is correct; the technical barriers to presenting a symposium as a webinar is ~ nil. There are some costs involved. Bad wolf's suggestion is a reasonable one; much like 25 free SciFinder searches.

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  7. SJ, I have to disagree with your comment: “I sense some defensive citadel mentality in the meeting notes.” Perhaps I have not chosen my works as carefully as I usually do.
    Anyone that knows me has seen me as the figurative bomb thrower at many an ACS meeting, be it at CEPA meetings, Council or late night discussions over beer and wine. I chose to be on CEPA as I felt the Society was not (and still is not) doing enough to safeguard the interests of its industrial members. Being polite is my style, but I can assure you nothing about the ACS is sacrosanct.
    As a general phenomenon, organizations can take on a life distinct from its members, and the interests of the organization can even be at odds with the membership. ACS is not immune from this behavior.

    1. My comment was a reaction (perhaps a knee-jerk reaction) to your discussion of changes in recruitment. Clearly, you are as skeptical of these practices as I am.

      I have equated the Council discussion with the effort of the leadership to recruit and I shouldn’t have. I apologize for this mistake.

      As you write, ACS is not immune to driving the interests of the organization first. In my view this is a sign of an ageing organization in need of drastic change. I sympathize with your identification as the figurative bomb thrower (vide supra). Not holding anything sacrosanct is probably the necessary attitude to affect any change.

      I hope that you can gain sufficient following to be effective. However, I see the problem with ACS’ direction less like stopping a train and turning it around. It is more like dealing with two trains running in opposite directions. One is the ACS policy and the other is the actual life experience, both in the industry and in academia. This experience may be changing too fast for ACS to catch up assuming that the direction actually changes.

      You broadcast proposal is definitely positive. I called it a “tweak” because while providing value to members and to ACS it doesn’t fundamentally change the character of the National Meetings as a primarily marketing tool and perhaps an income generator. This makes the National Meetings work for the benefit of the ACS rather than for the members.

      In your discussion the value proposition for members takes 2 lines while the same for ACS takes 4 lines with significantly more detail. Since it took almost four years to present this money-making proposal I have to conclude that even the 1:2 ratio in apparent value is insufficient to be heard at ACS. This is despite your active badgering of your fellow Councilors. All this doesn’t prove the focus of the Council or the ACS top leadership. However, these bits provide clues to what matters to ACS.

  8. Thanks, Pete for the bomb. I will contribute some gasoline.

    "the interests of the organization can even be at odds with the membership. ACS is not immune from this behavior". That's putting it mildly.

    One could also ask, if it is representing its members anymore. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry on the ACS:
    “prove a powerful and healthy stimulus to original research, … would awaken and develop much talent now wasting in isolation, … [bring] members of the association into closer union, and ensure a better appreciation of our science and its students on the part of the general public.”

    "talent now wasting in isolation" ? The current ACS President supports the outrageous salaries of the CEO and his cohorts, while at the same time she has not even prioritized viewing the tweet of Linda Wang, showing the numbers of jobs and job seekers in Denver (I have this in writing from her). I am therefore skeptical that the ACS nomenclatura really cares at all about its membership.

    “Closer union”? Will someone please explain to me what any of us have in common with a CEO who is pulling in + $ 800 K/year, plus a very healthy pension plan from du Pont?

    Another suggestion which I made to the Prez was that the CEO only receive a salary which would, e.g. be the average of the ACS members. A salary of + $ 800 K for a non-profit organization is not appropriate, especially when we have so many unemployed members.

    Addressing the discrepancy between the career situation with which many of us are currently faced and the proven disinterest of the “organization” in its members would be an interesting topic for discussion. Do we need a "Prague Spring" (or "Arab Spring")? Maybe a petition to demand changes to the constitution of the ACS to give it back to the chemists? Legally separate the publishing house from the ACS? Or turn the ACS over to the American Chemistry Council, and start all over, with a new professional organization for US-American chemists?

    1. Having some close up look at the immediate effects of Prague Spring and after reading recent summaries of the Arab Spring I suggest restraint. For the most part revolutions:
      - fail
      - are hijacked
      - fail after being hijacked
      The key to success seems to be the fundamental failure of the oppressing structure. For Prague Spring see the low oil prices contributing to the failure of the Soviet Union - only 30 years later.

      The ACS is not in an organizational crisis and the financial appear strong enough to sustain these (and higher) salaries. The crisis we see is in diminishing membership benefits. In other words, this is our problem.

  9. Hi SJ,
    You're absolutely correct that it's our problem. From my current location on the West Coast, the job market for organic chemists is dismal. A colleague with a US passport but of Indian extract even complained that "all of the jobs are going to India and China". The analogy that I used in the correspondence with the Prez was that we have become "chemical sharecroppers", traveling the country for piecemeal contracts lasting only for months.

    You're also correct in that the key to success of a revolution is an inherent weakness in the opposing party. That was not only the case in Eastern Europe, but also in our own revolution, 240 years in the past.

    But the very last part of what you wrote is not clear. Membership benefits? Assumedly, you aren't implying that membership in the ACS entitles us a stable job.

    Anyway. If the US continues to import large numbers of temporary laborers to carry out the research for its professors, with no long-term positive employment outcome, then this problem will spill over its banks. Speaking as a currently unemployed chemist, it is already starting. The ACS is steering straight at the iceberg of "Titantic" notoriety. Ironically, the ACS will induce the downfall of chemistry as a science in the US.

    On the other hand, there is a "dark statistic" of folks who have obtained chemistry degrees but who have been forced to leave the field because of the lack of job opportunities. Some of those are much more intelligent and talented than most of us here (myself included). The ACS has been pointedly ignoring this statistic. If it can pay some retired guy from du Pont + $ 800,000 p.a. until he becomes senile, then it can certainly afford some minor cash for a survey. And here is what I propose:
    a. Every college and university knows how many chem students it graduates each year. Isn't this information already available to the ACS?
    b. Compare those numbers to the numbers of FULL TIME employees in academia, gov't and industry whose jobs require a chemistry degree. This will take a little bit more work, perhaps the aforementioned CEO would care to chip in a few grand to accomplish this?
    c. Now: compare the two numbers from (a) and (b) on an annual basis over a period of, say, 10 years. We can work backwards on this to, say 2005.
    d. What information, specifically what trend does that show? Is the fraction of graduates who are finding employment in those categories changing in a consistent manner? Reminder: what are the conclusions that can be reached after analyzing the data in that manner?

    Of course there is a lot more work that needs to be done to accumulate data on the trends, but this is what we can do now with the information that is already available.

    Sh*t, I should start my own blog….

    1. Hi Generic,
      I am really sorry to hear about your experience. I wish you the best in finding your own way. You are fully aware of what you need to do, so I am confident you will be fine. Right now you are hurting. It is going to hurt a bit more before you get out of the current predicament, and you will make it just like all of us do.

      At home we had a discussion about moving to a BRIC to follow the jobs maybe 10 years ago. We had moved across one pond so we could move across the other one, too. Ultimately, we decided not to move because this would be an answer to an ill-posed problem. The jobs aren’t moving to BRICs, the jobs are simply moving. The current direction is just an accident of business practices, population density, colonial era job distribution, and government policies.

      Pharma employment in China is on the same curve as it was in the US in the 70s and 80s. They are simply moving twice as fast. India is moving slower and the government is not as centralized, so they will be going a bit up for a while. We all know what the back end of this story looks like. Business will find the next cheaper population and the University of Phoenix will educate them just enough wherever.

      I don’t want to follow the curve because I will always land on the back end of it. The trick is to be in front of the curve, which means moving to the next big idea place. To succeed I would need to guess the location correctly, endure the deprivation of the initial low, the turmoil of the explosive growth and the search for the next place. I don’t have the social skills or the life expectation left to do it well.

      I need to explain the “membership benefits” better. We all joined the ACS because we expected something in return (a benefit). Membership satisfied some needs:
      - the need to belong (“every chemist….”)
      - the need for information (access to journals, CAS)
      - the need for networking (meetings, workshops)
      - the need for higher authority (“ACS takes care of their own”)
      In all of these areas the relative membership benefit has declined. We found ways to satisfy our needs outside of ACS and ACS has less to offer us for the money:
      - we can belong wherever (ever seen MeetUp?)
      - almost all information is almost free
      - networking has never been easier (ever seen MeetUp?)
      - the king has been shown to have no clothes.
      Even if my list is all wrong the 17% non-renewal rate shows some nagging doubt in the general membership.

    2. Hi SJ,

      Indeed we were looking for a benefit from our professional organization. For 14 years, I was in Europe, and have been a member of the GdCh, the New Swiss Chemical Society (its name has changed yet again, I think), the RSC and the CSC. Only the RSC came halfway close to the ACS actually doing something for its members. But it is interesting that you point out that even the ACS is pathetic compared to the representation which other professionals obtain from their respective organizations in the US.

      Of the member needs which you have outlined, I (obviously) believe that “ACS takes care of their own” is the most critical (the + $ 800 K invisible clothes of the king being derivative).

      Over the past year or so, I've been collecting notes on what a professional society for US chemists should be, in contrast to the appalling attributes which now characterize the ACS. Three grandiose possibilities came to mind: (a) a wide-reaching petition by the members; (b) running for office of Prez or (c) suggesting the formation of a professional organization for chemists working in the US. Before anyone reading this starts chortling, I would point out that these are just ideas, and of course some of you have your own (besides laying down and dying, or working at Home Depot, which amounts to the same, IMHO).

    3. These are all good ideas once you make some basic assumptions:
      - there was some sort of mistake made in a policy session and a new leader can fix it
      - the organization is fundamentally sound and can be turned around with some effort
      - once turned around the ACS will become all things needed for all members and will lean on whatever powers need to be leaned on to return us to full employment.
      I really don’t want to question your designs. I think they are good and will cause some positive change. However, I just don’t think anyone, ACS or not, can return us to the past happiness. This train has left the station and the engine is bigger than the entire ACS even with all new made-up members. This change cannot be stopped. All the past and near future layoffs have already happened whether we want them or not.
      The list above is just my favorite top three bogeymen haunting all organizational reforms, so let me explain how they distort and devour any good will for change.

      1. The “original sin” idea. There is seldom a single event or person you can point to as the start of the bad times. Bad times didn’t start; they evolved from previous good times. We call them “good” times because we just don’t want to remember how hectic and screwed up they were. A new leader can clean out corruption if it exists. If a new leader tries to change history he will be run down or will become irrelevant. Also, the ACS itself doesn’t have a bad time. The members do. The organization is dealing with the weakness of its members, not the other way around.

      2. At the beginning of the “bad times” the ACS responded to external pressure and adapted. The members adapted to different pressures (or didn’t). The “old” membership class was uprooted and the new one hasn’t formed. Maybe there will not be a new dynamic membership class ever again. ACS has to deal with it. Turning it around will probably break it. Which may be good for the current members.

      3. There is not a single organization, person, god-like creature, or a Superman who can spin the Earth backwards and return the old jobs to those who lost them. Mourn the past jobs, adapt, and move on. There is no point asking the ACS to do the impossible. What ACS can do (and it hasn’t) is to make the mourning and adapting process less painful and more productive. Most of us who are not terminally angry just need the Big Mommy ACS to hold our hand for a little while. We will be just fine after that. For now the Big Mommy has deaf ears and some tungsten carbide deposits for the heart.

      There is a natural rhythm and music to social change. We can push for some change in the direction. Change will happen only when we know where to push.

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