A New Year’s Greeting for 2020

by Jan Golinski, new President of the HSS

As I begin my two-year term as president of the History of Science Society, I have been thinking about how much I owe the Society and what it has meant to me. At a pivotal time in the Society’s history—as it approaches its centennial in 2024—it is worth reminding ourselves why we value it so much. For me, and I am sure for many others, this has been a vital professional affiliation. I think of the Society as a community, membership of which has defined my identity as a historian of science. As we know, communities of all kinds are today under stress from the forces of globalization and technological change, which often seem disorienting or threatening. The Society has been considering how to respond to these forces for a while now. The strategic planning process was initiated by Lynn Nyhart during her presidency and completed by Lynn, her successor Angela Creager, and Executive Director Jay Malone in 2014. The plan aims to take advantage of the forces of change by diversifying our membership, broadening our international range, and disseminating our work through new forms of publication.

Although new media connect us in unprecedented ways, there is no substitute for physical meetings to create a genuine sense of community. In July, we held our first annual meeting outside North America. Our hosts in Utrecht were the Descartes Center, where Isis was housed from 2014-2019. The meeting was remarkably successful, attracting almost 800 attendees, 44% of whom reported they had never previously attended an HSS conference, and 35% of whom were not previously members of the Society. The meetings planned for the next two years, in New Orleans (2020) and Mérida (2021), will further expand our international audience, and we hope to keep these new members attending and participating in the years to come.

As we broaden our outreach internationally, we have to ensure that the Society’s meetings are welcoming to all. A few years ago, we created a policy setting out our expectations for respectful behavior and appointed an Ombudsperson to advise those who experienced any kind of harassment. We have also created a Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to integrate our efforts on this front. To support this initiative, we need to gather data on the demographic characteristics of those who attend meetings and contribute to our publications. I hope members will respond to requests to report their gender, ethnic identity, and nationality, when they register for a conference or submit to a publication. While nobody likes to be put in a box or reduced to a category, we do need this information to measure our progress in building a more diverse and inclusive community.

Outgoing HSS President Bernie Lightman (right) anointing our new President, Jan Golinski with the Sacred Sceptre

Outgoing HSS President Bernie Lightman (right) anointing our new President,
Jan Golinski with the Sacred Sceptre

The strategic plan also calls for maintaining the quality of our publications in the new world of electronic communication and demands for open access to scholarly research. This process will be led by the Society’s new co-editors, Alix Hui and Matt Lavine, who have recently moved Isis to Mississippi State University in Starkville. They are joined by Book Reviews Editor Projit Mukharji, working out of the office of the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, in Philadelphia. The distinguished editorship of Floris Cohen and his team in Utrecht will be a hard act to follow, but I am confident Alix and Matt and their colleagues will rise to the challenge. Even as we break the link with Utrecht, the editorship of this Newsletter by Neeraja Sankaran, who has been working out of Bangalore and will, for a semester do so out of Leeds, is another sign of our broadening international reach.

The strength of any community depends on the inter-generational bonds that secure its continuity. We are fortunate to have an energetic cohort of younger members of the Society, organized by the Graduate and Early Career Caucus. It is inspiring to witness their dedication and the resourcefulness with which they are building their careers. Since fewer historians of science can expect to hold tenure-track academic jobs in future, we must make sure the Society continues to answer these young professionals’ needs, whatever career options they end up pursuing.

To realize its ambitious aims, the Society needs the financial buffer of a larger endowment. We have done fundraising in the past, but not in a consistent way. With the centennial coming up, it’s time to ramp it up now. While we hope to identify donors outside our ranks, it is only realistic to expect that most will emerge from the current membership. This means that we will ask some individuals who have already given a great deal of time and effort to give additional monetary gifts. It is a hard ask, I know, but I trust that those who have already made a substantial commitment to the Society will want to help secure its financial basis into the future.

The presidency of HSS is a responsibility and a great privilege. I am particularly grateful to Bernie Lightman and the other past presidents who have led the Society to this point. Bernie’s wise and unflappable chairing of meetings has given me an example to follow, as has Janet Browne’s courteous and generous leadership. We will continue to depend heavily on Jay Malone, on Ryan Feigenbaum (Society Coordinator), and the other staff of the Executive Office. Most of all, we depend on the commitment of our volunteers, the members of Council and our committees, forums, and caucuses. More than anything, their spirit is what sustains this community.