Annual Meeting, Implementation of ASHG’s Strategic Plan, and Finances are Front and Center
While the world continues to grapple with uncertainties associated with COVID-19, ASHG remains a vital community for genetics and genomics researchers and will continue to provide programming and other benefits to help the community thrive. The ASHG Board of Directors has made it a priority to continue to support ASHG’s vision and strategic plan through difficult times to help ensure people everywhere realize the benefits of human genetics and genomics research.
The Board meets two times per year to discuss emergent topics, consider current and envisioned programming, set budgets, and oversee the organization. During its spring meeting, held virtually April 27-28, 2020, the Board considered next steps in the planning of the Society’s Annual Meeting in light of continued concerns related to COVID-19 (see President Anthony Wynshaw-Boris’s update). They also considered proposed several Committee and Working Group Action Plans, reviewed the McKusick Award selection process, evaluated ASHG’s finances and set budget parameters for the year, and participated in an engaging discussion with 9 NIH Institute leaders on genetics and genomics across NIH.
Committees: Implementing ASHG’s strategic plan
Leadership reviewed with enthusiasm an exciting set of committee action plans developed by 7 of 12 ASHG volunteer bodies and a smaller proposed set of priority activities for FY21. In committee meetings over the past five months, members considered the ASHG Strategic Plan vision, goals and objectives, brainstormed possible strategies to achieve them, and prioritized recommended actions. Following presentations of action plans for each Committee, the Board approved all of them as “primary guidance” and committee authorization, and replied with an initial set of individual activities that will be funded in the year ahead as part of an annual work plan and budget. Completed plans can be found on each committee’s webpage. The following items were approved for near-term action:
- Online Programs and Professional Education Working Group: implementation of a year-round regular content stream of ASHG digital programs; content creation of videos, webinars and other materials; technology innovations in various platforms for learning; and, eventually, a possible Spring/Summer virtual meeting on scientific programs of interest.
- Career Development Committee: development of a virtual career resources toolkit; providing development opportunities through the Annual Meeting and digital programming; and eventually, developing a mentorship database and training infrastructure.
- Membership Engagement Committee: developing and launching a shared interest group framework for tailored networking facilitated by online communities and annual meeting events; and building and fostering a pipeline of undergraduate students excited about careers in the field, with an additional emphasis on improving the diversity of the field.
- Professional Practice and Social Implications Committee: providing members with guidance, tools and year-round programming to help integrate ethical considerations in research and assessment of the potential for a graduate level curriculum on ELSI issues.
- Public Education and Awareness Committee: improving capacity to communicate broadly and engage with underserved communities; strengthening public communication including the development of ASHG’s Discover Genetics website section; and, in time, development of media outreach to communicate the value and benefits of human genetics to underserved communities.
- Government and Public Advocacy Committee: defining and refining ASHG’s advocacy positions by publishing perspectives and statements; enhancement of member advocacy engagement and learning; Congressional engagement through briefings and Capitol Hill events; and producing a new “Economic Impact of Human Genomics” report.
- Diversity and Inclusion Task Force: working across and through all committee activities as well as directly, the DITF emphasized the importance of highlighting and showcasing members of diverse backgrounds; ensuring society leaders and awardees reflect diversity; attracting diverse individuals to the field; launching and/or sustaining programs that support diverse early career scientists; developing messaging to communicate with and engage underserved communities; and working in coalition to identify and address systemic barriers to workforce diversity.
The Board recognized the significant achievements of past McKusick award winners, whom the Board nominates and selects. As ASHG recently reviewed, updated, and documented other awards selection criteria and processes, the Board did so with McKusick based on recommendations of a Board working group. They approved an update to the criteria to recognize both scientific excellence and service to the Society and affirmed that the code of conduct will be applied consistent with procedures for other awards. A Board member will formally present each top-ranked nominee at a Board meeting for discussion before selection.
Engaging with NIH Institute Leaders
The Board met for the first time as a body with directors and other senior representatives of 9 NIH institutes to discuss opportunities to align efforts in support of genetics and genomics research. The Board has maintained a continuous dialogue with NIH, and an especially strong and valued relationship with NHGRI. NHGRI Director Eric Green co-convened and moderated the session, which included ways to bolster collaboration in training programs, career path guidance to encourage a large and diverse workforce, opportunities to increase scientific programming, and more. Discussions with individual Institutes and Centers will remain ongoing where ASHG’s support and voice will be useful.
Finances and the Organization
ASHG’s overall financial health remains strong. The Board did discuss significant, still-emergent pressures on revenue sources given the novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, it remains confident that the Society is sound and, with prudent attention and action, can remain forward-looking.
The Board reviewed a favorable current year forecast expected to be approximately $380,000 net positive for the FY2020 year ending in June as the budget was buoyed by a very strong 2019 Annual Meeting in Houston. However, it recognized that the pandemic is causing emerging major economic headwinds that could change that outlook somewhat in final months. The Board discussed several FY2021 budget scenarios in light of the need to assess whether an in-person 2020 Annual Meeting is possible, practical or prohibited due to COVID-19. Given uncertainty, it approved three budget scenarios that reflect still-changing options for the meeting, which generates approximately 60% of gross ASHG revenue. While staff will pursue active cost containment, all likely scenarios envision a potentially significant one-year loss of revenue and resulting net operating loss. However, the Board reflected that the Society is positioned to weather those downturns due to reserve policies, and all scenarios maintain steady operations, enabling continued progress toward important goals and hopeful return to some normalcy in FY2021. Over the summer, the Board will reflect on public health and safety considerations for the meeting and following a decision, the Finance and Audit Committee and Board will revisit an adjusted final budget and begin to assess the outlook for future years. At the same time, reflecting the long-term uncertainties and expected very large loss of revenue caused by the pandemic, the Board approved application for an Emergency Injury Disaster Loan and a Paycheck Protection Program Loan in the amount determined by the program’s eligibility formula.
Following the strategic planning process in 2019, ASHG’s Board of Directors created a Strategic Investment Fund to support high-level, high-visibility projects that enhance value for ASHG members, drawing an amount up to 2.5% of the total reserve as of June 30 each year. The FY2021 estimated amount at the time of the Board meeting would be $460,000; the figure will be confirmed at the end of the fiscal year and used to support Action Plan programs of the committees.
In closing the meeting, the Board recognized that the community is working through the current situation together and ASHG will continue to pursue a bright strategic vision, support for committee directions, and enhanced member value.