The planning for the International Year of Light 2015 has brought to the fore the complexities of inter-societal cooperation. Each learned society has a geographically defined membership base. For example, the European Physical Society attracts mainly physicists from Europe. And while the American Physical Society has many international members, the majority of members are based in the USA. Moreover, each learned society defines its membership by scientific discipline, which can be more or less broad. The Optical Society of America will count many research scientists alongside the engineers working in industry, but they share the core discipline of optics and photonics.
There are other features that make each learned society unique. These include the history of the society, and when it was created. The EPS was created when Europe was fragmented along ideological lines, and greater European integration remains one of our priorities. The role of the learned society in setting standards in the country is also important. The Institute of Physics in the UK delivers a professional certification as “Chartered Physicist – CPhys” which is a well recognised professional attesting to high professional standards.
Learned societies will also have more or less influence in making policy, or setting standards, or as the recognised voice of the profession in their country. The size of learned societies varies widely, ranging from less than 100 to over 100,000.
All of these differences make joint programming of activities a complex challenge.
Nonetheless, these differences also offer opportunities and advantages. Cooperation among scientists is an important part of their professional culture. Seeing a problem, analysing different solutions, discussing and exchanging opinions to reach a consensus are integral aspects of how science is done.
Bringing different points of view, whether from culture, language, professional background etc. when looking at issues generates discussion. It also creates synergies, and new ways of addressing problems. While the process of going through the various arguments can take time, it is effective in finding innovative solutions.
I take my hat off to the people involved in leading diverse groups. It requires diplomacy, and a good understanding of the different cultures and the stakes involved. The will to get things done and to work towards a common goal are what makes working in the complex world of different learned societies so rewarding.
David Lee, EPS Secretary General