President’s Message: A Word from the SOT President during Uncertain Times

By George Daston posted 06-03-2020 14:21



Dear Friends and Colleagues:

These are unsettling times. Much of the world has started to slowly emerge from the shadow of a global pandemic that has taxed our medical, scientific, national, and local communities, disproportionality so for our friends, family, and colleagues of black or Latino heritage. Then, amid the grief and mental strain caused by this natural event, the recent killing of black people in Minneapolis and other places compounded the suffering. Our Society cannot take away this hurt and conflict, as much work needs to be done by individuals and organizations alike, but I want you to know that valuing all people is one of our Society’s guiding principles. I acknowledge the anger, hurt, and frustration and am committed to making sure our Society is taking actions to be part of a much-needed change. This starts by reaffirming our commitment to each member of the SOT community and to our community’s support of diversity and inclusiveness in all its activities, asserting that diversity and inclusiveness include many factors, such as race/ethnicity, gender, employment sector, nationality, geographic location, physical ability, and scientific expertise and perspective. As scientists, we will continue to explore and better understand the physical, chemical, and environmental factors that contribute to all forms of health, recognizing that science can inform other societal issues, such as industrial practices, worker safety, environmental protections, and more. As an SOT community, we will support each other and those who need our support; provide a welcoming, safe forum for all to share scientific research; invite and include individuals from all backgrounds into the sciences and toxicology; and continue our pursuit of creating a safer and healthier world for everyone.

On that note, I want to provide you with an update on the SOT plans for the coming year and to let you know about some decisions we are making to best preserve the Society’s financial health while also fulfilling our mission of creating a safer and healthier world.

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For most of us, the Society’s most important function is to provide a forum for scientific exchange, with the Annual Meeting being the most important venue for doing so. Although we were unable to have an in-person Annual Meeting in 2020, the Virtual Meeting, presented as a series of webinars, continues to reach thousands of SOT members. Attendance at these twice-weekly webinars has ranged from about 150 to more than 400, comparable to in-person attendance in the session rooms during the Annual Meeting. Continuing Education courses also are being presented. More than 650 ePosters were uploaded to the SOT Event App, and we’re aware of a few institutions, like Rutgers and Texas A&M, that have hosted their own virtual poster displays and scientific session presentations. The Virtual Meeting will run through the end of June. I encourage you to attend as many of the webinars as you can. When the Virtual Meeting ends, we will resume hosting webinars produced by our Regional Chapters, Special Interest Groups, Specialty Sections, and other Committees throughout the year.

In other news, the Society’s financial health is good. You may be aware that the Annual Meeting is our single largest source of revenue, far more than dues or journal subscriptions. Much of the Annual Meeting revenue goes toward paying the expenses of holding the meeting, and the good news is that those expenses are far less than the worst-case scenario we were facing in mid-March. The convention center returned our deposit, and our major service providers (e.g., logistics, audiovisual) charged us only what they had already spent rather than the full amount in our contracts. That still leaves us with a substantial deficit in this year’s budget, but it is not as big as we had feared. Many of you have wondered about insurance. SOT does have meeting cancellation insurance, but it does not cover cancellations attributable to communicable diseases, which is typical of most meeting and business continuity insurance policies.

The Society’s Reserve Fund is large enough to cover a catastrophe like the Annual Meeting cancellation. However, we decided not to access these funds immediately because it would mean liquidating assets that have temporarily declined in value because of the market downturn. Instead, we have established a line of credit that we can access for short-term cash flow needs. Any interest payment will be less than 1% of the annual operating budget.

What about the coming year? I’m pleased to report that most Committee, Component Group, and strategic activities will continue as planned. We asked the Committees for input on whether there were activities that could be postponed for a year or pared back (e.g., because of inability to travel or cancellation of other meetings). We received thoughtful responses and consequently were able to decrease the coming fiscal year operating budget by about 5%—partly from targeted decreases in Committee budgets, and partly from budgetary items associated with Council activities (e.g., emerging initiatives and Strategic Plan–related items). Importantly, this is more than enough to cover any interest due on the line of credit while still preserving almost all our usual activities. This will include strategic activities in the communications area, initiating action on recommendations from the Mentoring and Undergraduate Task Forces, and many others. We are confident that we can restore the Committee budgets to their pre-2020 levels for fiscal year 2021–2022.

As for the 2021 Annual Meeting, plan A continues to be to hold an in-person meeting in Orlando in March. The Scientific Program and Continuing Education Committees are already hard at work planning the program. We understand that there is great uncertainty about whether we will be able to hold a large gathering in March 2021, but at this point, the work needed to put together an in-person program is essentially the same as that for a virtual program. Because of the uncertainty, we are developing alternative plans in case we are unable to hold an in-person meeting. We have already charged an ad hoc task force, led by Councilor Cynthia Rider, with developing alternative scenarios, which will include assessing and learning from what others are doing in replacing their in-person meetings. We will hope for the best but will plan for the worst.

When I agreed to run for the SOT presidency, I never imagined that my term would coincide with the most significant global health and economic disaster of the last hundred years alongside social and racial injustices. It’s going to be a challenging time, but I know how many talented and creative people are working with me to keep SOT vital and vibrant and that together, we will succeed.

All the best,

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