To no one's great surprise, the movement to merge the Optical Society of America (OSA) and SPIE (The International Society for Optical Engineering) met with a less-than-resounding defeat at the polls. As I had predicted (see Laser Focus World, Jan. 1999, p. 228), the OSA members voted marginally against the proposal to create a joint organization, while the SPIE membership voted slightly in favor.
In fact, very few votes were needed to assure defeat of the merger proposal. Only 2420 of OSA's more than 12,000 members voted in favor. Given that a two-thirds vote was needed to pass the proposal, only 1211 votes against were needed to assure defeat. As it happened, 2551 OSA members voted against the merger proposal, meaning that 5103 votes in favor would have been needed to pass the proposal—twice the number that actually voted for the merger. But, as OSA president Tony Siegman, a supporter of the merger, noted, "The members have spoken. In their view a merger of the OSA with SPIE is not in the best interests of the society at this time."
On the SPIE side, 2287 members voted in favor of the merger proposal, and 2180 voted against it. For both societies, the voting was less than 50% of the membership (just over 40% of OSA members and less than 40% of SPIE members). While that is higher than for many political elections, it is still a disappointing turnout. Either the nonvoting members are satisfied with the status quo, or they really don't care one way or the other. Chairman of OSA's corporate associates and newly appointed executive director of SPIE Eugene Arthurs commented, "I'm disappointed. The vote isn't good for the societies and for the industry" (see p. 51). I agree strongly.
Unity is strength
I have made my position very clear (see Laser Focus World, June 1999, p. 164): I was strongly in favor of the merger proposal. The optoelectronics community should not be divided between two associations (three, if we count the IEEE's Lasers and Electro-Optics Society). Strong leadership and strong finances are needed to build a larger community to actively promote the field on a worldwide basis. It's time to stop sniffing about who has the most Nobel laureates or who has the most peer-reviewed papers and get down to building a community that will promote the interests of its members. Paul Schenker, SPIE president, tried to put a positive spin on the merger deliberations. "I feel the best initiative at this point is creative OSA-SPIE cooperation in tangible projects."
The model of a professional society based on meetings where esoteric papers are given to tiny audiences may be going the way of the dinosaur. Already the Internet is changing the way businesses and individuals interact. For groups such as the OSA, SPIE, and IEEE to survive, they will have to find ways of interacting more closely and more often with their members. Increasingly, these interactions will be electronic. We can no longer wait months for a paper to be read at an obscure technical meeting and subsequently published in a bound set of proceedings.
Serving the needs of members
We are seeing astonishing creativity in terms of entrepreneurs developing new communities and new forms of interaction on the Internet. Where is the creativity in developing new ways of interacting with professional-society members? Who is trying to determine the needs of the majority of OSA and SPIE members who did not cast their votes? If the societies are not to become academic backwaters, the leaderships have to find ways of becoming invaluable resources that members can easily access on a daily basis.
But now the naysayers will pat themselves on their collective backs and say, "We told you so; the members have spoken, and they prefer the way things are." The societies had a chance to move radically forward. The vocal protagonists for the status quo have ensured that all merger discussions have been killed. A window that was opening has been slammed shut, and the shutters have been closed. Maybe we'll look back in a few years and say, "The opportunity for change came and was missed."