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Looking Back to 2010: Birth of a New Vision for AGU

AGU past and present leadership reflects on the strategic plan adopted 5 years ago that continues to guide transformation of the organization today.


Before 2010, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) was no stranger to strategic plans. But those plans pretty much “sat on a shelf,” recalls former AGU president Carol Finn, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colo. Shelved with them, Finn and other Union leaders sensed at the time, was AGU’s chance to fully participate in, and maybe help steer, the waves of change rippling through the Earth and space sciences.

Today, AGU leaders are looking back over the half decade since a new type of strategic plan was adopted in September 2010. Their unease before then had led to a transition in leadership and a revitalized process in which AGU members and others from throughout the Earth and space science community were brought together to create a new vision for the future for AGU. The results: a living document that has guided AGU ever since and a wave of modernization and change within AGU that has remade the organization and continues to this day.

Lighting the Way

The plan articulated a mission and a vision for AGU supported by four major goals in the areas of science and society, scientific leadership and collaboration, organizational excellence, and talent pool. It laid out dozens of objectives for the organization to pursue to fulfill those goals.

“The plan has been a ‘north star’ to guide our work and evaluate our success,” said CEO and executive director Christine McEntee, who joined AGU the same year the strategic plan was adopted.

With the plan came a transformation of roles plus new forms of governance—including a Board of Directors and expansion of the Council to committee chairs and focus group leaders. The transition and new strategic plan opened doors for more members to be involved, specifically early-career scientists and students, in keeping with Carol Finn’s aspiration to “always bring the future to the table.” Those who contributed to building the strategic plan hoped that their contributions would allow AGU to live up to its promise as a leading organization in the Earth and space sciences.

“It was really more than just the plan,” said Timothy Grove, a past president of AGU and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., who was president when the strategic plan was developed.  “It was preparing the new leadership to operate strategically.”

Inspiration for the plan came from “recognition that Earth and space science was evolving and that AGU…needed to evolve with it in order to stay relevant and impactful for the future,” McEntee added.

Evolve Here, Evolve There

AGU’s evolution has taken many forms. By entering into a publication partnership with Wiley in 2012, the society took a major step to “increase the breadth, depth, reach, searchability, and discoverability of [AGU’s] published content and to offer the scientific community the fastest time-to-publish in many of the fields our journals represent,” McEntee said.

To build global cooperation and strengthen the geosciences, AGU forged partnerships with sister societies, such as the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society, the European Geosciences Union, and the Japan Geoscience Union, said Michael McPhaden, another past president of AGU and a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash.

AGU has also established programs to “bring geoscience to the community level,” with the annual Science Policy Conference and the Thriving Earth Exchange, McPhaden noted. And, with programs like Sharing Science, it has worked to helped scientists improve their communication skills. Before 2010, “AGU operations were business as usual,” said Finn. “Now, AGU regularly challenges itself to go beyond what we know, take calculated risks, evolve with the times. The result is a larger impact in Earth and space science and the communities beyond.”

Ways to Grow

The strategic plan also calls for AGU to diversify its pool of members with regard to gender, ethnicity, race, age, and so on, across the geosciences and space sciences. As one of several ways  to achieve that, the plan urges a more welcoming atmosphere for students and early-career scientists.

“Allowing student and early career scientists to serve as part of the AGU leadership is a huge commitment to this organization’s progress,” said Annie Tamalavage, a graduate student in oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station who is one of three student members of the 61-member Council.

The current strategic plan doesn’t offer answers for everything AGU will face in the years ahead. For instance, said McPhaden, AGU and sister organizations may need to focus on even earlier stages of budding scientists’ lives to ultimately be able to meet goals of gender balance and ethnic diversity. That’s because of insufficient education programs and opportunities at the lowest levels.

Five Years New

Nonetheless, after 5 years, the plan remains a dependable source of inspiration and direction. It serves as “a critical framework for the leadership of AGU to be able to focus our attention on the most important things” under each of the four main pillars of the plan, said Margaret Leinen, AGU’s current president and director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“While significant progress has been made, there is still much to be done,” added Frank Krause, AGU’s chief operating officer. Looking toward the future, he said, the Board has directed staff to “stay the course.”

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), Looking back to 2010: Birth of a new vision for AGU, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO036795. Published on 2 October 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0