This announcement presents the main steps of a plan for reforming the IAU Commissions, prepared by the Division Presidents as a follow-up of the new Division structure approved at the Beijing General Assembly in 2012, recently endorsed by the Executive Committee. This plan includes a call for proposals and selection of new Commissions, a signing-up by individual members for these Commissions, a vote for their Organizing Committees, and the termination of all current Commissions, with the simultaneous creation of the new Commissions by the Executive Committee, at the Honolulu General Assembly in 2015. As a result of this plan, the scientific structure of the IAU will be renewed, expecting in particular that many new Commissions will address the most recent advances in astronomy and astronomical methods. We wish all individual members to be closely engaged in the reform process and in building the new Commission structure. To that effect we have opened an online Commission Reform Forum for feedback to the Executive Committee and to the Division Presidents.
The IAU General Assembly held in Beijing in August 2012 voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Resolution presented by the Executive Committee (Resolution B4), according to which a new Divisional structure was to be put in place. This phase has now been implemented successfully with an electronic sign-up for the new Divisions creating a large base for Division membership. Division Steering Committees (including the Presidents of their respective Commissions as ex-officio members and six elected at-large members) were subsequently established and formally approved following the Executive Committee meeting in Nara, Japan, 18–20 April 2013.
The text of the same Resolution also requested "the new Divisions, guided by the Executive Committee, to work together to produce a revised structure for Commissions…in accordance with the Statutes and Bye-Laws of the Union”.
Commissions play an important role in the life of the IAU, for example:
Commissions foster discussions and information forums on topics of specific current, and potentially long-lasting interest within the field of one or more Divisions, connecting astronomers across the world;
They promote progress in their field and provide services and expertise to the community e.g. by way of scientific reports, both inside and outside of the IAU;
They are well-placed, along with Divisions, to identify the need for Working Groups with particular deliverables;
They provide opportunities for more IAU members to gain experience in IAU leadership;
They are well-positioned to stimulate and support proposals for IAU Symposia and other meetings.
To carry out the request of Resolution B4, the Division Presidents, in coordination with the Executive Committee, started discussions to develop a plan of Commission reform in the spirit of promoting scientific evolution and opening up the IAU – the same arguments that motivated reform of the Divisions.
The core of this plan is to propose a complete overhaul of the Commission structure, and there are strong arguments for this. While their role is fully recognised, the existing Commissions have been in place for a long time and do not necessarily represent the most natural subdivisions in modern astronomy. They also have very variable levels of activity and effectiveness. With the reform of the Divisions, the ability to join a Division without being a member of a Commission should be made simpler. With over 1000 new members having joined the IAU in Beijing, there is a clear opportunity and motivation for a global restructuring of the Commissions. This involves establishing, from a zero base, a new set of Commissions, and giving all IAU members the ability to join these new Commissions or not to join them at all. In order to reflect the needs and ideas of IAU members, especially of the younger generation, this would be best achieved by a bottom-up process involving the whole community.
Therefore, after many discussions over the past few months, the Division Presidents presented to the recent Executive Committee meeting (Canberra, Australia, 30 April – 2 May 2014, see photo) a plan for “resetting” the Commissions. This plan was discussed and endorsed by the Executive Committee.
The key features of this plan and the timeline are as follows:
The IAU will issue a Call for Proposals for Commissions (15 June 2014). These can either be new Commissions, or existing Commissions re-applying for approval. Commissions will need to clearly state which Division(s) they want to belong to, establish their purpose, role and activities for the next two or three triennia, and demonstrate some minimum level of expected support from IAU members. The Proposals should also indicate who would constitute their founding Organizing Committee (OC) members, and how many at-large OC members would be elected. It is envisaged that future Calls be issued every triennium.
Proposal submission will be in two phases: Letters of Intent (by 15 October 2014), followed by Full Proposals (by 31 January 2015). Up to the Full Proposal deadline, IAU members will have the opportunity to express their preference for proposed Commissions by an indicative electronic poll. The rationale for a two-phase process is to help optimise the set of proposed Commissions by providing opportunities to identify and correct any significant omissions or overlaps, either coming from the proposers themselves, or on the advice of the Division Presidents or of the Executive Committee. The Letters of Intent will be posted on the IAU website, and the outcomes of the indicative poll will be made available to IAU members prior to the Full Proposal deadline.
Based on the Full Proposals, new Commissions will be initially ranked by the Steering Committees of the Division(s) they have expressed the wish to join. The separate Division Steering Committee recommendations will then be reviewed by a panel consisting of the Division Presidents and of the IAU Vice-Presidents, chaired by the IAU President-elect. This panel will make a final set of recommendations to the IAU Executive Committee by 31 March 2015.
The IAU Executive Committee will make the final decision on the new Commissions at the next Executive Committee Meeting (Padova, Italy, 15–17 April 2015). The results will be announced shortly thereafter to IAU members.
IAU members will then be asked to sign up for the new set of Commissions (with each member able to join a maximum of three Commissions or no Commission at all). Once the membership of each Commission is established there will be elections of the at-large OC members for Commissions by 8 July 2015.
As an important formal, final step in this process, the Executive Committee will terminate all current Commissions at the end of the present triennium, and create the new Commissions, with their Organizing Committees in place, effective from the start of the following triennium (i.e. on the last day of the 2015 Honolulu General Assembly).
Although this plan provides for global reform of the Commission structure, it is nonetheless fully in agreement with the Statutes of the IAU (in particular Statute 22), which sets out how Commissions may be created or terminated by the Executive Committee, upon the recommendation of the Division Steering Committees.
Two features relative to Commission membership are important to stress:
The Division structure adopted in Beijing covers the entire field of astronomy and IAU members must be members of at least one Division. By contrast, Commissions do not need to cover the whole field of a Division, and as mentioned before IAU members will not be required to join any Commission.
Starting in the next triennium, members of the newly created Commissions will be able join and leave Commissions freely at any time (with the condition that members may not belong to more than three Commissions at all times, independently of the Divisions).
Under the new structure, Commissions are thus expected to be more focussed, in areas where IAU members voluntarily choose to work usefully and effectively together to achieve specific goals, perform significant roles, or for some other particular purpose of interest to the community or to society.
Since the engagement of all IAU members is essential for the success of this reform, we have opened a Commission Reform Forum. The contributions to this forum received by 6 June, i.e. a week before the Call for Proposals for Commissions, will be taken into account to finalise the Call for Proposals. This forum will remain open at later stages so that the Executive Committee and Division Presidents can analyse comments and suggestions provided by IAU members, provide regular feedback to the community, and use them to steer the implementation of the Commission Reform at it progresses.
The IAU Executive Committee believes this process for renewing the Commissions is a unique opportunity, never offered previously, to innovate and engage the future. The Commission reform aims at making the IAU, at a time when it turns almost 100, more responsive to its members, and in particular to its younger generation, as well as more effective and relevant in a constantly evolving scientific and societal environment.
President, International Astronomical Union
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
General Secretary, International Astronomical Union
Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris