An idea whose time has come?

Dec. 1, 1998
There are definite signs that two of the three major professional societies in our industry are finally beginning to see the light. Despite having decided against federation a decade ago, the Optical Society of America (OSA) and SPIE--the International Society for Optical Engineering--now appear to be heading for a serious merger. It`s about time!

There are definite signs that two of the three major professional societies in our industry are finally beginning to see the light. Despite having decided against federation a decade ago, the Optical Society of America (OSA) and SPIE--the International Society for Optical Engineering--now appear to be heading for a serious merger. It`s about time! Time to forget academic rivalries, to present a unified voice for the field, to attract younger professionals into a more dynamic organization. It`s an idea whose time has come. Or is it?

Little more than a year ago, the two societies formed a Joint Task Force (JTF) whose charter was to "explore the possibility of a closer collaboration or an expanded structural relationship (such as a federation or a merger) between OSA and SPIE, including a Plan of Action (steps and timing) required to accomplish it." The JTF, comprised of some 20 or so movers and shakers from each society, was charged with issuing a report and recommendations by the fall of 1998. This the JTF has now done. At the time of writing this column, only the Executive Summary of the JTF Report had been made public, but by the time you read this, the entire report should be available. You can see more details of the JTF activities on the two society websites (www.osa.org and www.spie.org).

A new, unified society

Although I feel that there is often an inverse relationship between the size of a committee and its ability to produce meaningful results, the JTF appears to have taken the bull by the horns and has come up with a proposal that seems to make eminent sense. Without any beating about the bush, the JTF recommends that "the OSA and SPIE combine to form a new society that incorporates the current societies, including their assets, liabilities, and current operational structures into a new, unified international society." The JTF stops short of defining a new name at this point, referring diplomatically to the proposed new grouping as "UNO," with all of its subtle undertones of a United Nations organization. Nobody asked me, but I humbly suggest the "Optical Engineering Society," which is short and to the point.

However, the JTF proposal is not as radical as it might seem at first glance. The JTF`s UNO Organizational Chart (included in the JTF`s Executive Summary) bears closer examination. Although there is to be a UNO Board, the OSA and SPIE are to continue to exist as member societies of UNO. Each society would retain its board of directors and would continue "most, if not all, of the activities that are core to each organization as it exists at present." Not only that, the two societies would retain their present headquarters staffs in their well-appointed offices in Washington, DC (OSA) and Bellingham, WA (SPIE). It appears as though the role of UNO would be mainly to act as a sort of referee who would adjudicate conflicts and act as a budgetary watchdog. That may not be enough to meet the needs of society members and the industry.

I`m reminded of the old saw about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. To me, this UNO looks more like a camel than a horse. I was hoping that the JTF would be even more radical in its recommendations and would propose a full-blown merger of memberships and staffs rather than a somewhat looser federation of the two societies. I believe a stronger society would attract more (and younger) members. A more tightly knit grouping would have a stronger voice in public and governmental affairs. A dynamic and less top-heavy association would be more nimble in responding to member needs. There would be incentives to unify the current mishmash of trade shows and meetings. There should also be financial economies of scale.

The right direction

Nonetheless, I confess that I think that the JTF and the two societies are taking steps in the right direction. It may not be the vaulting leap I was hoping for, but it is a commendable start. The JTF recommendations deserve rapid and, hopefully, overwhelming approval by the memberships of both societies. It is an idea whose time has come. I look forward to observing and reporting on the progress toward a new, unified, and more-dynamic association.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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