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Science  19 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6216, pp. 1473-1475
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1473

19 December 2014

Edited by Kathy Wren

Plan to transform AAAS moves full steam ahead

Through a long-range, strategic initiative, AAAS is becoming a more member-focused, digitally oriented organization.

Trellis, the scientific community's new communication platform, will debut in 2015.

Every strong organization should sit back every 10 years and reflect on where it is, where it's going, and how it can best serve its constituents in the future. The world is changing, and as “the voice of science,” we at AAAS want to make sure that the organization is maximizing its usefulness to the scientific community and the broader society.

AAAS is in excellent shape from every perspective, making this an ideal time to look forward to the next decade and beyond. Over the past 3 years, we have surveyed our members, clients, readers, and others, and it has become clear that the next iteration of AAAS must do two things: It must adopt a “digital first” mindset to become a multimedia, multiplatform science communication enterprise, rather than a print-centric publisher, and it must listen to its members and undertake activities that better serve their needs.

The AAAS Transformation Initiative, announced last spring, has completed its initial planning goals, and we are now moving ahead with strong momentum. Further, the AAAS Board has put funding in place to enable this transformation to be carried out over the next 5 years, and results will start becoming outwardly visible within months.

Phillip A. Sharp

Chair of the AAAS Board; Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Faculty Member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Department of Biology

PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY PHILLIP A. SHARP
Alan I. Leshner

AAAS Chief Executive Officer and Executive Publisher, Science

PHOTO CREDIT: DAVID SHARP

The new, online only, open-access journal Science Advances will debut in February, significantly increasing the volume of high-quality research published by AAAS. Spanning science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences, the new digital publication will be a primary focus for new publisher Kent Anderson, who joined AAAS last month, and Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt.

All of the Science journals are also undergoing a complete digital reorganization, under the direction of Robert Covey, in the newly created position of digital media officer, and McNutt. The process involves a far-reaching redesign of the Science websites and other changes to ensure that all content is created with the Web foremost in mind.

AAAS is also now beta-testing a new science communication platform, Trellis, which will become available to the scientific community within the coming year. This novel online networking platform will better enable participants to connect across disciplines, affiliations, and geographies to communicate and work together more effectively. Areas of activity will include discipline-crossing topics such as food, water, and energy; “meta-issues” affecting the lives of scientists more broadly; or newly emerging areas of research.

On the membership front, work is under way to expand AAAS membership by threefold, starting with scientists in both the academic and private sectors and eventually reaching out to the general scienceinterested public. Under the direction of a Chief Membership Officer to be hired in the coming months, the association is marshaling its considerable resources in areas where members have told us they would like more support and involvement, including advocacy, networking, career support, and volunteering.

A key part of AAAS's mission involves advocating on Capitol Hill and at the state level for sustainable funding for R&D and the responsible use of science in policy. Staff are developing mechanisms to give members many more opportunities to join AAAS in these efforts to speak up for science. For example, a members-only website, to be launched in 2015, will allow members to advocate for research funding and policies that impact the research community. It will provide detailed analyses of S&T legislation, legislative alerts about pending votes or amendments of concern, and mechanisms for contacting policy-makers.

Drawing from expertise across the Association, AAAS is ramping up and better integrating its offerings for scientists at all stages of their careers. The demand for these resources is high: A free AAAS webinar called “Thinking Outside the Lab” drew over 6000 registrants, and the career planning tool called myIDP has 68,000 registered users. Future offerings will include more career-related webinars, a specialized career portal, and networking opportunities for members at local meetings as well as the AAAS Annual Meeting.

This is a time of great creativity and problem-solving at AAAS. It is also the beginning of a fundamental culture shift within the organization, to wholeheartedly embrace a digital-first, member-focused approach. AAAS culture must also become more amenable to innovation, which we are encouraging by setting up a small office to explore and develop new business concepts and other kinds of partnerships.

The Transformation Initiative and the institutional culture change that drives it will be greatly facilitated by the arrival of Rush D. Holt, Ph.D., as AAAS's new chief executive officer. Holt, who was a practicing research physicist and teacher before serving eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, will join AAAS this coming February. He will be the ideal next staff leader for the association because of his broad understanding of science and of the issues relating science and the rest of society.

A training ground for innovation

Young entrepreneurs honed their ideas for serving developing societies, at the GIST Tech-I Competition administered by AAAS.

Edmund Aienebyona's idea could reduce maternal and infant mortality. Behaylu Abreha's could support the production of animal feed using less land and less water. Felipe Varea's could provide a way to easily and cheaply detect outbreaks of poisonous “red tide” algae. All three of these science- and technology-based innovations could provide jobs and development opportunities in the young entrepreneurs' home countries of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Chile, while improving the lives of people in those countries and beyond.

Yet, each of the ideas needs a support network and funding to become a reality.

Cultivating that type of support network was the impetus behind this year's Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I Competition, held 18 to 21 November in Marrakech, Morocco. Initially developed by the U.S. Department of State and organized and run by AAAS, the competition brought together 30 young entrepreneurs from 23 developing countries. Eighteen mentors—recruited by AAAS from the front lines of industry, governmental and nongovernmental funding agencies, and science and technology advancement organizations—provided a much-needed forum and training ground for the young innovators.

Cynthia Ndubuisi of Nigeria earned second place in the GIST Tech-I Competition's idea category.

PHOTO: AAAS

“In developing countries, most innovative minds are silenced. There's no platform to carry your voice,” said Zambian entrepreneur Muchu Kaingu, whose mobile application project aims to “sort out chaos in our communities” by organizing and automating the business activities of merchants, from inventory to pricing to profits. “The human element that the mentors provide, someone to say if you're on the right track, is really important.”

“You always love your ideas; you're passionate about them,” said Alim Khamitov, who is developing a remotely controlled system to cut down on apartment burglaries in his native Kazakhstan, “so you need input from others. I come here for the experience, to take advantage of the expertise of people in industry. I like the environment, the ecosystem. You can't feel the same thing in Kazakhstan, not even with your team.”

2014 GIST Tech-I finalists and mentors

PHOTO: AAAS

The GIST competition began in 2011 as one of the initiatives implemented by the U.S. Department of State to support innovation in the developing world, at the direction of President Barack Obama. Since its inception, participants, who apply for the program and are invited to be finalists through an extremely competitive multistep selection process, have generated $80 million in revenue by commercializing their innovations, according to U.S. State Department calculations.

“Scientists and engineers have long been seen as speaking a universal language,” said AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian, “but globally, more and more entrepreneurs are tapping into science and technology to promote innovation and economic growth.”

This year's GIST Tech-I Competition, which was orchestrated by Jennifer Roderick and Cristine Geers of the AAAS International Office, was held at the 5th Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakech, where Vice President Joseph R. Biden made a speech at the opening ceremony about fostering entrepreneurship to drive growth and create jobs.

“When I travel [in Africa and the Middle East] and the entire developing world,” Biden said, “I see young people with limitless promise to make not only their countries but the whole world better.”

“Fostering entrepreneurship is not just about crafting the right economic policy, or developing the best educational curricula. It's about creating an entire climate in which innovation and ideas flourish.”

In 4 days of training and competition, this year's 30 young entrepreneurs worked through exercises designed to help them define and validate their ideas, target their markets, and “pitch” their business propositions. Itzam De Gortari, CEO for a business acceleration organization that identifies and cultivates promising Mexican tech startups, led sessions emphasizing the entrepreneurs' need to focus on the business realities of bringing an idea into the market. “There is no innovation without finding the proper need,” he said. “Most startups fail because they didn't develop their markets, not because they didn't develop their products.”

Questioning the assumptions the GIST participants had about their innovations caused them to adjust their approaches and even their products, some of them significantly.

“One thing I really enjoyed was when we had to draft the persona of our customer,” said Nigerian Cynthia Ndubuisi—whose project brings waste cassava peels to farmers for healthy livestock feed—referring to an important part of the training that focused on defining the customer. “That really helped, because in just doing that, it simplified things so that I can speak to any investor about my business. It made me really think about what my customer wants, and how to get to them.”

Mentor Matthew Graham Dyor, CEO at Payboard and former managing director at the Microsoft Accelerator powered by Techstars, called his involvement in GIST Tech-I an opportunity to give back as “part of the code of entrepreneurship.”

“We want to help these young entrepreneurs have a better, more realistic understanding of what they've got going, so that they can translate a passion into an international business that can get customers and investors,” Dyor said.

In addition to the support network, the mentoring, the refined perspective on their businesses, and the camaraderie with peers from around the world, the innovators had a chance to win funding. Thirteen winners took home a total of $68,500 in cash prizes awarded on the quality and presentation of their business propositions, and a number of the contestants said that simply having participated in a program supported by the U.S. Department of State and AAAS will create more opportunities. At least one competitor, Ndubuisi, was approached in Morocco by a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides economic assistance in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Whatever the exact benefits provided by the program, both young entrepreneurs and mentors expressed commitment to maintain the important network they had established in Morocco, and the young entrepreneurs pledged to bring what they had learned back to their home countries.

“I can serve as a mirror for someone else who has an idea,” said Pavel Santos, of the Dominican Republic, who is working on a computer platform that assesses learning style to customize online education, “not to put that idea away, but to make it a reality.”

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