Sea Change?

by Philip Chadwick

We're all supposed to embrace change these days, aren't we? I think most of us know that 2011 saw some big changes in the way that BEMS is run, and right now the vote is open on proposed changes to the constitution to start to make the operations of our Board and Society a little more modern.  So is that it? Isn't that enough? Can't we stop there?

Well, we have avoided an immediate financial crisis that would have bankrupted the Society and we now have systems of management in place that allow BEMS to be run effectively by its Board.     We are still left with a structural financial deficit of around twenty five thousand dollars -  by which I mean that that is how much we will continue to lose each year if all else stays the same. Unfortunately, all else probably won't stay the same because we have falling membership numbers. Just as significant,  the move to joint meetings with EBEA will mean that BEMS won't get such large incomes even from Annual Scientific Meetings that are as financially-successful as we expect Brisbane to be. With meetings being run slightly more at arms-length now we can (and should) expect their focus to be on meeting quality and student support and not on profit. It is likely that in just a few years we will be facing a financial crisis and a level of membership that is below a critical mass. So did we just swap a sudden death for a slightly more protracted one?

The critical difference is that this time, we recognise that we have a problem and we have some time to try to fix it – but not very much time. We need to start right now, and by that I mean August-September 2012 with the intention of having real proposals to discuss at the Annual Business Meeting in June 2013. There are two priorities: increasing membership and decreasing operating costs.  If we can do either I would be quite happy; doing both at the same time will be quite a challenge.   I'm a naturally-optimistic sort of person, though, and I think that if we do accept that there are fundamental difficulties, we can take the opportunity for some quite radical shifts in BEMS to make it not just less costly to run but also a better Society.   Of course it's easy to spot the problems; the difficult bit is finding the fixes. In this article I'm going to put my neck on the block and share with you some ideas that I've had about the sorts of changes we should be contemplating.

Membership, meetings & the Society in general

I was not altogether surprised at one of the findings of the recent Student survey – that many students joined the Society to get cheaper registration for our Annual Meeting.  I have always felt that outside a small dedicated core of long-term members (who we must acknowledge and thank) the reduced meeting fees and cheaper access to the Journal are the main drivers for membership for many people. I think the Journal is best left well alone – it is very successful both scientifically and financially and it's never a great idea to mess with something that works.  That leaves us with two targets: the Annual Scientific Meeting and the rest of the Society.  

Scientific meetings
The Scientific Meeting is already changing – in the future, it's going to be held jointly with EBEA and we have drawn up a set of meeting site selection criteria that will allow us to factor in local interest and scientific activity.  It needs to go further, though. We are in danger of becoming a bunch of scientists talking politely to each other as our numbers dwindle away.  There is no question that the core of the meeting must remain scientific:  we are in the end a scientific society. We can involve other societies, focus on new applications, and these are things that have been suggested in the past and incorporated, and still the attendance numbers fall. The reason is simple – it is decreasing research funding and falling travel grants. With that background we can't sustain a scientific meeting that only pulls in laboratory scientists.  We have to widen the appeal.

I think most of us have had the experience of being asked what our work is at a party, by the guy sitting next to you on the plane or by your dentist. Even a very general explanation usually triggers a discussion and the inevitable “well, do cellphones cause cancer then?”  People still find this stuff interesting; the reactions to Dariusz Leszczynski's blog and column (blog URL; column URL confirm that. Given that we have expensive meetings in far-away places, we're probably never going to develop a big public participation.  But there are a lot of people whose job it is to be up-to-date on the issues: people like regulators, health advisors and practitioners.  For example, the 2013 meeting in Thessaloniki coincides with the final emergence of the European Directive on occupational EMF and there is a fantastic opportunity there to pull in a lot of people who really need to know what's going on  - and so far mostly don't. That's just one example, and of course we need to generalise that beyond the hazards issue.

We also need to make the meetings a little more dynamic. I mean that in the nicest possible way – I have been impressed with the programmes at the last few Scientific meetings – but I have heard many people commenting that there was not enough debate. Making the meetings more interactive, perhaps by having more panel discussions and set-piece debates, can only bring in more people.

The other thing we need to do to get members in is to broaden our geographical horizons.  Closer co-operation with EBEA is a good thing, but there is a danger that by not continuing that process we are reinforcing a perception that BEMS is a US-European organisation. I think that we should now be talking to colleagues in other parts of the world to try to make BioEM meetings into truly world meetings, with organisation and participation by bioelectromagnetics societies and groups in Asia and elsewhere.

One way to do that, and to move the outreach beyond people who are already BEMS members, would be to hold targeted workshops in locations where there is bioelectromagnetics activity but where we have few members. The idea would be to introduce the Society and maybe one or two key scientific topics, and asking the host country/region's scientists to tell us about local bioelectromagnetics initiatives.

So, having pulled people into the Society, how do we keep them? Apart from the meeting and the Journal, the only thing that the Society offers its members right now is the Newsletter. I'm a big fan of the Newsletter and I think that Janie does a great job with limited resources, but I also think that it could be so much more. The Newsletter is really the glue that binds the Society together and it needs to become sleeker, more responsive, more interactive and a whole lot less like, well, a Newsletter. I would like to see the Newsletter Editor's role changing to become something more like a media manager and I would also like to see greater use of social media and even just old-fashioned email – a Friday afternoon round-robin of what just happened this week would be a great way to boost the fabric of our Society and make us all feel like we belong.

Paying for all that
We can't run continual deficit budgets; that means that we are always spending more money than we receive and we will soon become bankrupt (see below). However, we should always remember that we are a non-profit organisation and that we have substantial reserves, which have not been touched for a decade. We should not be afraid to invest in the Society's future and it is better that we do this than dwindle to a few scientists with a big bank account.  I propose that we move a proportion of our reserves out of long-term investments into short-term bonds that can be cashed to fund the outreach programme and Newsletter development that I have described. This should probably be somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 dollars, and a detailed expenditure programme should be developed before the bonds are cashed.

Administration & the Board

Tackling the structural deficit
We have projected incomes from the Journal and our membership dues for this year of around $55,000.  Our expenditure on administration is predicted to be somewhere between $75,000 and $80,000.  Ideally, the income should match what we spend on administration; this is not only a specific goal of our Long-Range Plan but also about the only way we can avoid bankruptcy. What we cannot do is to start to use our reserves to cover day-to-day running costs; this structural deficit is going to get wider over the next few years, and in 4-5 years it would have swallowed most of our reserves. We need to take action now to get the administration finances balanced so we can use the reserves wisely on developing the Society.

We have reduced our management expenses significantly, and apart from the costs of running the Board, all that is left is accountancy & legal fees, a few thousand dollars on the Newsletter and web/systems support. The single biggest cost, somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 dollars per year, is the Board.  It is the only remaining expense that we have any real ability to reduce without compromising the functioning of the Society. Of the Board expense, the single biggest item is the February Board meeting, which costs between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars depending on location, duration and how many Board members attend.

At one time, the February meeting was used to set the Society’s annual budget and to plan the June meeting, but changes in the way we work mean that now we set budgets later (when firm financial projections are available) and plan meetings much earlier. These trends (too early for budgeting, too late for meeting input) mean that the February meeting is now useful mainly for discussing structural change to the society. The 2010 meeting in Rome and 2011 meeting in Lyon were, in my view, essential and led to significant decisions on the way BEMS will function in the future. As we move towards electronic Board meetings, we have to make a positive decision about future February Board meetings and ensure that we do not continue to hold them just as a default. The time to make that decision is now, as we start to set up the electronic meetings system. In my view there is a danger that a continued default physical meeting will prevent us from moving, psychologically, towards running the society mainly by email and phone conference, and will continue the tendency to have decisions and discussions only twice a year - in February and June.

My proposal is not to stop having a February Board meeting, but rather that any physical Board meeting must either be justified by specific need, which should be balanced against anticipated costs and travel time of all attendees, or be held in conjunction with another, pre-existing, Society meeting or workshop at which Board members already are present.  That would leave the physical meeting either side of the Annual Scientific meeting unaffected. There is undoubtedly social value to a February meeting even if there is nothing specific that needs to be discussed, as it helps to mold the Board into a team and gives the opportunity to meet others. My question is whether that is worth up to $40,000 of the Society's money. That's more than we gather in membership dues each year, and my feeling is that as a non-profit organisation the least we can do is to make sure that we justify such large expenses, and specifically such large expenses that if avoided would remove our structural deficit immediately.

Board structure
Whatever we decide about the February Board meeting, the costs and complexities of the Board need to be reduced.  The Board is still too large for the membership size, even when reduced to fifteen people as in the proposal currently under vote. There is an imbalance between the number of officers & other Board members (in 2012-13 we have seven officers: three Presidents, two Treasurers, a Secretary and the Editor-in-Chief) and it would be difficult to reduce the number of members without reducing officer numbers also.

I would like to see a much smaller and more focussed Board, with every member having a defined role, and the two-tier system of officers and others removed. This would be more conducive to the modern requirements of running the Society and it would mean a little more work for everyone, or at least that everyone on the Board had defined responsibilities, which might actually help it to function better as a coherent entity.

These are my proposals for a new Board structure:

  • Make the posts of President, Treasurer & Secretary all 3-year terms in total, each with one-year “****-elect” overlap (as currently with Treasurer-elect & Vice President), with the elections to the posts staggered. The Past-president role vanishes because the President would serve three years in total as now, one year as Vice President and two as President   It also makes the Treasurer job a little easier, as it would be for three years rather than four.  

I know that there has been debate in the past about the length of term of the President, with some people arguing for one year in case we have someone who is not up to the job, and some for four years to allow a President to make a real impact. It's an interesting issue; my observations of being an officer alongside six Presidents is that unless they have significant previous Board experience and can hit the ground running, they achieve far less in their year of power than they wanted, and before they know it June has come around and they are yesterday's news. Conversely, in my view, a four-year term would be a very long time to have to be in office. My proposal of one year as Vice President and then two in office as President seems to be a reasonable compromise. I think that there is now as much risk to the Society from having a poor Secretary or Treasurer (since these are the people who run things on a day-to-day basis).

  • Remove the formal distinction between officers and the rest of the Board. Everyone would be a Director and no one would be identified separately as an officer. This would help with Board unity and also encourage the Board members to participate in the day-to-day running of the organisation rather than feeling it was someone else's job. It would also remove any differentiation in, for example, support to attend meetings, which can sometimes be a source of friction on the Board.
  • Reduce “other” Board member numbers to three, each to chair at least one subcommittee and one to be elected each year. The current proposals to change the constitution reduce this number from nine to six, and this change would help to focus and sharpen the Board whilst retaining the current 3-year election cycle.
  • The Editor-in-Chief would remain a Board member.
  • The Newsletter editor & Chairs of the Technical Programme Committee and Local Organising Committee would be invited to Board meetings by custom & default, and supported to attend.

Taken together, these proposals would result in a Board of eight or nine people, which is a more appropriate size for our Society and more suited to focussed decision-making. Three would be elected each year. I would foresee this new Board structure replacing the Executive Committee (which is currently almost as big) as the Society's day-to-day management committee.

One issue that I know will be in peoples' minds is that amongst the current (large) Board there has always been the ability to balance the interests and geographical origins of Board members. With a smaller Board that becomes more difficult; conversely we have sometime struggled to find sufficient people from a particular discipline or country to fill the vacancies, and recently we have been moving away from a strict geographical quota system for Board members to a more general aim to try to balance such things out against available people. In the end I decided that it was possible to fracture the Society down any number of planes of symmetry – geographical, scientific and others - but that way madness lay. I am not sure that the Board en masse actually has much say any more in the way the science is played in the Society. There is certainly a case for making sure that the Technical Program Committee is balanced and that the Scientific Meetings are not all weighted in one direction, but with joint meetings with EBEA that is maybe not purely a BEMS concern.  My conclusion was that the Board's current role is about management and trying to expand the society, and that we should seek the best structure and people for that irrespective of what camp they fall into.
Summary (because all scientists like a good summary)

  • Widen the appeal of our Scientific meetings
  • Engender more debate
  • Make BioEM an international meeting brand rather than just BEMS-EBEA
  • Hold outreach workshops
  • Make the Newsletter something more dynamic that can act as the glue for the Society
  • Identify specific funds from reserves to invest in the Society's future and develop a detailed plan on how to spend them
  • Tackle the structural deficit before it bites us
  • The February Board meeting should not happen by default but only after cost/benefit analysis
  • Make the Board smaller and more focussed

These are my ideas; I've chosen to put them in the Newsletter because I'd like to start a wider debate about BEMS' future. I don't expect everyone will agree with them all, maybe not any of them; they're not all fully-developed and I'd really like to hear what others think.  We can't stand still, where we are; BEMS must continue to change if it is to survive, and the result will likely be a very different Society than the one we knew some years ago. It may well be strange to many of us, but it could also be considerably richer in texture.