Did you know that among the thousands of professional societies and associations out on the real world, there’s a Council of Engineering and Science Society Executives (CESSE)?

There is indeed. And it’s meeting here in Vancouver, Canada for the remainder of the week. Attendees come from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and everything in between. They’re executive directors from societies you’ve heard of like the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), but they’ve also turned out from the American Society for Investigative Pathology and the International Association for the Study of Pain and the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.  They’re the managers of publications and journals for these and other societies. They’re the chief financial officers and the membership directors and the public affairs officers and the meetings directors for these organizations. They’re the vendors, suppliers, and sponsors, representing cities that would like to host science and engineering society conventions, or hotel chains who want to house the attendees, or publishers who want to print the books and journals.

For the next several days they’ll have a few plenary sessions…on doing business globally, or on executive leadership. The specialist managers will attend tracks on education and training, finance, HR, IT, marketing, and much more.

The CEO’s have their own set of breakout sessions: on science and human rights; staying relevant; STEM outreach and education…and on leading in response to emergencies and disasters.

 Here’s the blurb for this latter session:

Thoughtful leadership in response to emergencies and disasters provides an opportunity for an association to leverage its expertise to dramatically improve the situation. An association may lead or participate in first-response for a disaster, be a trusted source of information in confusing media messages, or be experts in evaluating failures. Besides the satisfaction of contributing to the broader community, these situations provide an association with visibility and prestige. Because emergency situations frequently require prompt action with minimal information, you must plan and prepare to assume a leadership role. Join this session to learn from the experiences of other CESSE members.


Not surprising that after the year or so we’ve just been through, with earthquakes from Haiti to Chile to New Zealand to Japan, with volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Chile, flooding across North America and tornadoes tearing up the southeastern U.S., that disasters should be on everyone’s mind. Not surprising that they should want to hear panelists from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Engineers without Borders, and the American Meteorological Society.

And the AMS should have a pretty good story to tell. About members who are directly responsible for developing forecasts and warnings on floods and drought, winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and space weather. Broadcast meteorologists who deliver those forecasts and warnings to the public. Engineers who build the needed hazards observing systems. Social scientists who improve the communication of mass warnings. And much more.

But a little reflection reminds us that natural extremes are fundamentally integrating events. So Katrina was not just an emergency-management challenge. It was an energy disaster, spiking gasoline prices throughout the region. It was a food event, disrupting the flow of grain from the US heartland to New Orleans shipyards and to the hungry world beyond. It was a public-health event – decimating the hospitals and dislocating healthcare professionals across the Gulf states. It was an educational event, shutting down public schools and closing institutions of higher learning. As a result, there isn’t one of the professional societies represented here who has been immune to the effects of disasters over the past year. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Fisheries Society, the Ecological Society of America? The BP oil spill shaped everyone’s year. Those earthquakes? They got the attention of the Fabricators and Manufacturer’s Association, the International Facility Management Association, the American Concrete Institute – you get the idea. Everyone’s connected. Everyone has a stake.

But there’s more. All these professional societies have members spread around the country and the world, in harm’s way. Any disaster, anywhere, winds up affecting a handful of every society’s members. All professional societies share concerns about their own business continuity in the event of disaster near their home offices.

Here’s hoping that out of Wednesday’s discussions three points will hit home:

First, that whatever our professional society’s agenda, we aspire to achieve our goals on a planet that does much if not most of its business through extreme events.

Second, that as engineering and science societies, we of all people should find it natural to advocate “learning from experience,” versus “rebuilding as before.” Surely this is the mindset most likely to keep disaster losses in check in future years.

Third, given these two realities, and given that we’re all in it together, CESSE might contemplate revisiting this topic again next year, and maybe even for a few years, to see if together scientists and engineers can turn around a national defeatism about such tragedies. If we make common cause perhaps Americans will stop accepting disasters as inevitable and start reducing their impacts.

That would be quite a sucCESS(E) story.

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