Cash-strapped ANZAAS is set for closure

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Beginning of the end? Chairman McKellar (left) plans to ask for ANZAAS to be wound up. Credit: P. POCKLEY

The 109-year-old Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) announced last week that it lacks sufficient funds to continue operating. The association has been beset by falling membership and declining attendance at its congresses.

The association sustained a heavy loss on its 1996 congress in Canberra, and last week's congress in Adelaide, South Australia, only broke even. Chairman Bruce McKellar, dean of science at the University of Melbourne, is to recommend to a special general meeting in December that it be wound up.

Created as an offshoot of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1888 when Australia was a colony, ANZAAS gave coherence and identity to the emerging scientific communities both of Australia and of New Zealand, which hosted a congress every decade.

Congresses attracted the largest gatherings of scientists in Australia and New Zealand, with a wide range of specialized sections and, uniquely in the scientific calendar, crossdisciplinary sessions and forums on policy and social issues. But after the Melbourne congress in 1985 and the last in New Zealand in 1987, attendances fell sharply.

One factor has been a rapid growth in specialist conferences held at the same time. Last week, for example, the Australian Society for Microbiology also met in Adelaide, drawing 900 paying delegates. By contrast, sessions at ANZAAS had audiences of 10 to 20. The general registration of 220 indicated no resurgence of interest and finance in the long term.

Local organizers had had to use volunteer labour, as the federal government initially refused to provide the congress's normal grant. Under pressure, Peter McGauran, the science minister, relented. But his offer of A$14,000 (US$10,000) was too small and too late to make a difference.

The turning point came when the ANZAAS council suddenly had to cancel the 1998 meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, just as it was due to be publicized at Adelaide. Convenor Jim Reid of the University of Tasmania says that it withdrew in the face of competition for government funds and corporate sponsorship. Another factor was a challenge from Australian Science Communicators, a media group dissatisfied with ANZAAS.

With no congress next year, ANZAAS's position became hopeless. The viability of its official journal, Search, Australia's only science magazine, is also threatened and a rescue campaign has begun, supported by Sir Gustav Nossal, president of the Australian Academy of Science.

Some link the demise of ANZAAS with McGauran's forced resignation in the same week (see Nature 389, 427; 1997) as indicating malaise in the public standing of science in Australia. But Nossal hopes that a new organization, representating individual scientists, may rise from the ashes of ANZAAS.

McKellar is recommending that the organization pass its remaining funds of A$100,000 to organizations with “similar aims” in the promotion and public understanding of science.

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Pockley, P. Cash-strapped ANZAAS is set for closure. Nature 389, 532 (1997) doi:10.1038/39137

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