Farewell from Katherine McCarter
Retirement is a time for reflection, and I find myself looking back on my tenure as ESA executive director. In 1997, Bulletin Editor in Chief Allen Solomon welcomed me to ESA in an editorial. He expressed high hopes for my time at ESA and set a high bar. The tone of Allen’s editorial was welcoming and positive—and that is exactly how I have experienced ESA for over 20 years. As a new CEO during the 1997 Albuquerque annual meeting, I penned my own Bulletin editorial chronicling my early impressions of ESA noting the hopes and fears I heard expressed by ESA members during the meeting. As I look back at the list goals in my editorial (in quotes below), I feel gratified about all the ESA achievements in the past 20 years. ESA has grown and expanded its impact significantly while maintaining the high journal standards and the value of the annual meeting for our members. One of my observations in 1997 was a concern among members over this growth and ESA’s evolution in structure and management. In the editorial I said
ESA is evolving as an organization from one which was effectively coordinated by dedicated volunteers to an organization that requires professional staff to manage the business of a $3 million society. Members recognize the need for this transition, but are anxious about the changes it may bring.
Indeed, we have evolved into an organization with a stable annual budget of $5-6M and a growing ‘rainy day’ reserve fund of $3.5M. ESA added a combined total of 23 new sections and chapters in the past 20 years reflecting the diversity of disciplines and members’ interest. The ESA office moved two times to accommodate the growing programmatic expertise needed in the DC headquarters. The Science Program office expanded its mission, size, and suite of activities and the Public Affairs office added expertise in media and policy allowing ESA to become ever more influential. During this period, ESA established an Education and Diversity office (which includes ESA’s SEEDS Program that won the US Presidential Award for Mentoring) and in this past year, a new Membership Services office with the goal of enhancing member benefits. In my 1997 editorial I noted that members were anxious about the transition to a professional staff structure, but I believe the benefits to ESA as an organization and to its members are evident as seen by ESA’s strong reputation, the services it offers, ESA’s growing influence in support of ecological science, the vigor of the annual meeting, and the growth of ESA journals. The staff and the leadership are a team that work together to accomplish the goals of ESA. Twenty years ago, ESA members were supportive of ESA’s growing voice in the policy realm. This support resonates even more today as ESA seeks to inform policy with science and engage in relevant issues that affect ecology and ecologists. In the editorial, I penned
members value the steps already taken to make ESA more visible in the policy arena and are supportive off a greater role for the society in decision-making which affects the future of the science of ecology. In addition, there is a sense of responsibility as ecologists to inform the ongoing societal debate about environmental challenges.
ESA has in place a structure that involves staff, leadership, and expert members in the development of policy positions, congressional briefings, action alerts, and other policy activities. ESA actively engages with numerous other scientific societies who work in coalitions to address important policy concerns and to fight for adequate funding for science. We also recognized the growing need to enable our members to become more active in this arena and have instituted training, workshops, and other events including a yearly award program for graduate students that over three days includes training and meetings with legislators. The importance of maintaining our high standards of excellence in our publications and meetings was another observation I made, “We must maintain the high standards of our journals, and continue to conduct stimulating and productive annual meetings.” Not only has the excellence of our journals been maintained, but the frequency and number of pages of all our journals increased over the years. The launch of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and Ecosphere are a testament to ESA’s ability to deliver scientific content in new ways. After 100 years of self-publishing, and after a careful review of our publishing program, we decided to partner with John Wiley and Sons to produce our journals. This change is resulting in greater organizational stability, the opportunity to extend access to our science, and an ability to upgrade our entire publishing program. The future of our journals is full of possibilities. ESA’s annual meetings continues to be a major avenue to share ecological science. The expanding interests of ESA members have resulted in a program filled with opportunities to share the diversity of scientific interests, to network with colleagues, and to present information in new formats. The meeting now also plays an important role in providing career development and mentoring sessions, as well as an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary work. In my 20 years, perhaps the most exciting highlight was ESA’s 100th annual meeting in 2015 that featured a video of President Barack Obama congratulating ESA on its important work. Responding to changing member needs is an important ongoing goal for a professional society. I expressed my desire for this in the editorial by reflecting
there is a desire for headquarters staff to be ever more responsive to the needs of the members.
I believe that the accomplishments in the past 20 years are directly the result of priorities expressed by the ESA leadership and membership. As we look to the future, our new Membership Services office will have the ability to continually monitor member needs and allow ESA to anticipate and develop programs to meet them. Our members are telling us that young scientists seeking careers in the public and private sector will require new attention. ESA’s Certification Program is growing in importance to support this need–as is mentoring, training, and career information. Increased sensitivity to diversity and inclusion is at touchstone of all Society efforts. There is also a growing awareness of harassment that many members face during their careers who will be looking to ESA for guidance, support, and resources. ESA implemented a meeting code of conduct to address harassment at ESA events and strives for our meetings to be a safe place for all of our members. I am confident that as the science of ecology and ESA members‘ interests and needs change in the future, ESA will meet these new challenges and continue to be a relevant and strong professional organization. I began my 1997 editorial with the observation that
this is a Society of individuals deeply dedicated to their profession who demonstrate an extraordinary loyalty to their professional Society.
Loyalty is a precious gift and as the new executive director, I was determined that ESA must never take loyalty for granted and always strive be worthy of its members’ allegiance. I hope that I have lived up to your expectations and reached my goal. I am grateful for the honor of serving ESA and for the support and encouragement provided by the ESA leadership and staff. It is my hope that ESA extends the same warm welcome that I received to my successor who– together with the staff, elected leadership, and membership– will lead the Ecological Society of America into a bright and impactful future.
Katherine S. McCarter
Letter from the President
What a year it has been! Many of the topics that I hoped to advance during my year as ESA president seemed to be deferred because surprises required my immediate attention on behalf of the Society. Given these surprises, four of which I list below, it is very fortunate that ESA has a very effective Governing Board and a highly talented professional staff that kept the ESA trains running on time and added emergency trains as needed. Not all our efforts in responding to surprises were successful, but I am proud of our ability to learn, adapt, and make tough decisions to steward ESA’s resources for the future.
The U.S. presidential election occurred during the first ESA Governing Board meeting in ESA’s Washington, DC office over which I presided. It resulted in the election of a populist, nationalist U.S, president with little regard for facts, whether they come from science, economics, or other sources. We were not silent in the face of the president’s assault on the use of science in federal decision-making. Director of Public Affairs Alison Mize, Executive Director Katherine McCarter, and Vice-President for Public Affairs Frank Davis wrote or co-authored—and I signed—over fifty letters to the president, agency heads, or Congress—three times the number sent in the previous year.
In the face of long-term declines in National Science Foundation (NSF) spending power and the likelihood of more budgetary pressure on federal science, NSF cancelled the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) program, which has been a formative influence in the professional lives of so many young ecologists. Director of Science Cliff Duke, Vice-President for Science Jayne Belnap, and I had many conversations with peer societies, and with NSF leaders to identify a more cost-efficient way to administer the DDIG program. Although we and others tried, our collective efforts were unsuccessful in saving NSF’s DDIG program.
Surprising challenges continued for the family of ESA journals in the increasingly fast-paced world of scientific publications. We discontinued our involvement in one journal that was not meeting expectations, which allowed us to focus more effort on improving the performance of other journals. Director of Publishing and Member Services Steve Sayre, Publication Committee Chair Rob Jackson, and ESA’s stellar editors-in-chief are responding wonderfully to meet ESA members’ needs and expectations. New resources and Editor-in-Chief Debra Peters’ leadership allowed Ecosphere to grow rapidly, and time to publication in all the ESA journals dropped 50% in the last year. As expected, the shift from self-publication to publication by Wiley has increased the magnitude and stability of our journals’ revenue.
Katherine McCarter, the long-time beloved Executive Director of ESA, announced her retirement effective January 2018. After 20 spectacular years of service to ESA, Katherine seems irreplaceable, and I consider it a blessing to have served alongside her during her last full year at the helm of the staff. I am also grateful to former ESA Secretary Charlie Canham for chairing an executive director search committee, assisted by an executive search firm, to consider a very talented and experienced set of applicants to succeed Katherine. I am confident that ESA will emerge with a new executive director who will help us successfully navigate the increasingly complex scientific, political, and funding landscapes for ecologists. ESA is on very solid financial ground, thanks to long-time Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Biggs and Vice-President for Finance Evan DeLucia. It is also on increasingly strong organizational footing, and I believe poised to grow in size and influence.
In retrospect, my concerns were unfounded about attention being diverted to surprises and away from topics that I had hoped to emphasize during my presidency. This happened because the other topics were already part of the ongoing work of ESA and emphasized by the 2016 strategic plan of ESA. Given our capable staff and leadership, we continued to make progress on longer term priorities while also responding effectively to the surprises of the last year.
Here I recap progress on three longer term priorities identified in our strategic plan and now endorsed by at least four presidents or presidents-elect starting with Immediate Past President Monica Turner. First, ESA should better serve all its members—especially our younger members; members in government, the private sector, and other non-academic careers; and members from underrepresented groups—while not forgetting our most numerous members in academia that ESA has served so well for over 100 years. The SEEDS program and other efforts under the leadership of Director of Education and Diversity Programs Teresa Mourad and Vice-President for Education & Human Resources Nalini Nadkarni continued to bring new voices into the ESA fold, and the newly established Membership Office under the leadership of Steve Sayre embodies this priority.
Second, ESA should improve its communications to members, and build capacity for communication from our members to audiences beyond ESA to increase the influence and use of scientific information in society. The Society commissioned a member survey to determine what our members desire from ESA. We are planning now to meet these needs. Development of a new member communication strategy is underway and will be guided by the new executive director.
Third, ESA should allocate the Society’s effort and resources consistently on these strategic priorities, increasing the continuity of governance across years. Constancy of purpose is needed to increase the value and impact of ESA. To that end, I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from and working as a team with my predecessor Monica Turner, my successor Rich Pouyat, and his successor Laura Huenneke.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you as ESA President. I am more encouraged about the future of ESA than I have ever been, but its strength depends on you. Please encourage your colleagues to join ESA, and during the coming year, join me in giving a gift to ESA in addition to your dues. As a non-profit scientific society in a time of decreasing public and private support for research and development, ESA’s importance is increasing while its fate rests in our hands. Let’s join hands to strengthen the voice of ESA.
David M. Lodge