A new era for setac: The challenges of globalization


The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) is about to enter a new era. In September 2001, SETAC members worldwide were balloted and asked to vote on whether the four separate sister organizations—SETAC North America, SETAC Europe, SETAC Asia Pacific, and SETAC Latin America—should combine under a single global SETAC constitution. The membership voted, virtually unanimously, in favor of the proposed constitution, and on January 1, 2002, SETAC truly became a global society.

This momentous stage in our Society's history has not been reached quickly. Discussions and preparations for a unified global society began in earnest in 1998, but the idea of a global society was mentioned in John Giesy's 1990 presidential editorial [1] and was the subject of Ron Kendall's 1992 presidential editorial [2]. During the past two and one-half years, the governing bodies of each SETAC organization (geographic units in the new parlance) collaborated to develop a global structure for SETAC that would be better positioned to meet the needs of its membership worldwide. This was not a straightforward process; several challenges had to be met [3]. I wish to focus on three challenges that face us still: ensuring fair representation, maintaining diversity and flexibility, and being inclusive.


Challenge 1: Ensuring fair representation

One of the basic principles of SETAC is that it must be organized and structured democratically. Global SETAC is managed by a SETAC World Council (SWC), which sets policy and ensures consistent quality and delivery of member services worldwide. The SWC is composed of elected representatives from each of the four geographic units, with each having one base vote plus additional votes in proportion to membership. Since its original founding in North America in 1979, SETAC has grown into a truly international society with more than 4,900 members in over 70 countries. However, the majority of members reside in North America (i.e., 3,390 compared to 1,207 in Europe, 236 in Asia Pacific, and 113 in Latin America); hence, SETAC North America will have the most votes on the SWC, followed by SETAC Europe. The distribution of votes will change as more members from outside North America and Europe join the society. In the meantime, however, the potential exists for the Society, although democratic, to be dominated by the views and wishes of a single geographic unit. The need for democracy without dominance was recognized when drawing up the global constitution, which states that SWC representatives “should strive for consensus on all matters. In the absence of consensus, in order for a motion to be passed, at least two geographic units must be represented in the decisive vote.” The onus is on the elected representatives of the SWC to ensure that they address the issues and meet the needs of all SETAC members, irrespective of where they reside.

Challenge 2: Maintaining diversity and flexibility

Diversity is one of the main strengths of SETAC. SETAC brings together scientists and practitioners from a variety of disciplines to exchange ideas and knowledge about a range of environmental issues. In addition, a global SETAC draws together members from different cultures, who speak different languages, adopt different working practices, and have different financial circumstances. The challenge is to harmonize member services and benefits while being aware of, and sensitive to, the diverse background of the membership. Diversity is accommodated within the global model via a hierarchical structure beginning with the SWC and moving down through geographic units to regional units (branches or chapters). The governing body at each level in the hierarchy is bound by the SETAC constitution and must adhere to the global policies and objectives of SETAC; however, each has the flexibility to organize and manage its activities and to establish its regional policy. The adoption of a “think globally, act locally” principle is essential to ensure maximum participation in the Society and is illustrated by the following example.

One of the specific objectives of the Society is to promote research, education, communication, and training in environmental sciences. The main vehicles for achieving this objective are the Society's journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, and its meetings. Each year the Society organizes two major international meetings, one in North America and the other in Europe, plus a number of smaller national and international meetings and workshops. At an international level, communication and participation are maximized by conducting meetings and publishing in a common language. Consequently, all of the Society's publications and international meetings are held in English. However, at a regional level, communication and participation may be enhanced by conducting meetings in the local language. This flexibility is embodied within the SETAC Europe constitution, and it should be a feature of the Society worldwide. The German language branch has been meeting to discuss regional legislation and environmental issues in German since 1996. In his 1997 presidential editorial, Foster Mayer [4] argued that SETAC must communicate more widely, to provide public education and in particular to “provide assistance to developing countries by communicating information on lessons learned.” English may not always be the most effective language for achieving this goal.

Challenge 3: Being inclusive

The success of a global SETAC will depend, in part, on its ability to be inclusive. This means not only involving current members in the Society's management and activities, but also striving to ensure that potential members are not excluded. Financial constraints are a major limitation in certain countries, and prevent some qualified individuals from joining our society, participating in our meetings, and contributing to our publications. In a global SETAC, all members pay the same dues and receive the same benefits. The SETAC constitution makes allowance for members from developing countries listed by the Organization for Economic Community Development and other members with special circumstances to apply for reduced membership dues; funds are also available to encourage wider participation in some meetings. Considerable potential exists to do more. Better use of new technologies may help reduce costs and facilitate involvement through electronic discussion forums and even virtual meetings, although I think the latter is probably in the future. Other possibilities include running training courses and short courses, normally restricted to Annual Meetings, in different countries, following the excellent example of the SETAC Whole Effluent Toxicity Experts Advisory Panels, which trained more than 600 people between 1997 and 2000 by running their two-day training course in 20 North American cities.

SETAC provides a mechanism for bringing people together to exchange information and skills, but it does not, in itself, have technical and scientific expertise. That lies with individual members who have the motivation and commitment to translate good ideas into reality. The membership is the Society; the councils, boards, committees, and office staff manage your Society for you and deliver the services you require. Getting your voice heard can seem more difficult as an organization grows. Therefore, the governing bodies of SETAC have the responsibility of ensuring that the views of individual members are sought and that the Society is responsive to the wishes of all its members. Equally, individual members must take ownership of their Society and play an active role in its management and activities.

I have outlined just some of the challenges that SETAC will face in the next phase of its development. I am confident that we will meet these challenges and that we will build an even better Society in the process. I am looking forward to the new era of SETAC and am excited about the opportunities that a global SETAC provides. I hope you are too.