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A Global, Diverse and Inclusive OSA: Challenges and Opportunities

A Global, Diverse and Inclusive OSA: Challenges and Opportunities

Federico Furch, OSA Ambassador, Max Born Institute, Germany

As a researcher I travel quite often. This year in particular, was my first year as an OSA Ambassador and I had the opportunity to travel much more than usual, to places where I had never been before.  This role as OSA Ambassador has allowed me to expand my network dramatically and gave me the incredible opportunity to connect with a great number of colleagues, mostly students, around the world. I cannot stress enough how grateful I am for this opportunity, how rewarding it has been, and how much I have learned.

The experiences I lived this year have led me to reflect on the present and future of OSA. I had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the many needs of students and members with different social, cultural and economic backgrounds around the world. This poses a very particular challenge for OSA: understanding and addressing the needs of all OSA members. I believe it also presents OSA an opportunity to grow: addressing the needs of our members allows them to integrate better into our scientific society, in turn making OSA an even more global and diverse community.

Why should OSA care about being global and diverse? The most important reason is to promote the generations, applications and archiving of knowledge in optics and photonics worldwide, which is in the mission statement for OSA. From a more practical point of view, one should keep in mind that a scientific or technological breakthrough arises when people think outside the box, when a particular problem is approached from an innovative and different angle. In that sense, a more diverse community has bigger chances of approaching the same problem from different perspectives.

OSA was born out of the enthusiasm of a group of brilliant and very proactive scientists, at the University of Rochester, over a hundred years ago. With time, OSA has grown to be an international organization with more than 50% of its members outside the USA. OSA is going now through its own journey of becoming more and more international. This journey comes with a great deal of challenge: how do we plan to address the needs of a diverse and growing membership? Strong moves into Europe and Asia are already visible, with new venues for important conferences and a recent OSA office in Europe. But what about our members in other parts of the world? In particular, developing nations.

Through many discussions with colleagues from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, we recognized the outstanding work OSA has done providing opportunities to students through travel grants, support of activities through the student chapters and programs such as the Traveling Lecturer Program.  We also came to identify two particular topics where OSA can continue to grow:

  • Public policy: OSA is doing an outstanding job in connecting with politicians in the USA to support science-based decision making. We are also doing a very good job in supporting new initiatives that will create financial opportunities for our colleagues in the United States. Similar efforts in Europe are beginning to take shape. It is not clear however, how similar initiatives can be replicated in other countries. This is a particularly complex problem. It involves familiarizing with very different political structures and scenarios. From a practical point of view, I believe action has to come from active members in those regions, who know better the local political arena and may provide connections to local governments. As a first step towards integration in the global scenario, members could submit proposals to OSA requesting for example, for OSA to provide endorsement of official petitions from national or regional scientific societies or networks to their respective governments.
  • Recognizing deeply problematic financial situations: OSA is already offering important discounts in membership and meeting fees to our members coming from countries considered “developing nations” by the World Bank. A similar initiative is in place for publication fees in OSA journals. These initiatives are truly fantastic and illustrate the will of the society to recognize different realities across the globe. The ability of members from some developing nations, however, to join a conference is sometimes compromised by extremely challenging financial situations.

Even though both points just discussed might lay a bit far away ahead in the future of OSA or complex to address, it is something that we ought to start discussing in order for OSA to keep growing internationally. Obviously, OSA cannot solve the problems of the whole world, or even the particular problems of its members. But further measures to help mitigate the problematic realities of some of OSA members can help a lot in creating equal opportunities for fully accessing membership benefits.

In that sense, it was particularly refreshing and encouraging to see what our youngest members think. In the last Student Leadership Conference celebrated last September near Washington DC, almost 200 representatives of OSA Student Chapters from 46 different countries, took part in a workshop in which, among other things, they addressed the question of how they see OSA in 2030. The response from the students was overwhelmingly towards a more inclusive and diverse organization, that helps creating opportunities for those members in more challenging financial situations. I was with a warm feeling that the future of the organization is in good hands. After all, they represent the future leaders of OSA.

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