Society History

An Imperfect Account of the Founding of the RNA Society

Olke Uhlenbeck

(from the August 2005 RNA Society Newsletter)

It’s hard for me to believe that the RNA Society is already more than 12 years old! What follows is a personal recollection of the events leading to the founding of the RNA Society, based entirely on my memory and a few conversations with Joan Steitz and Tom Cech (who were there at the time). Since I did relatively little checking of facts and the details are fading from our collective memories, consider this simply as a story rather than a history. Perhaps Chris Greer can do a more complete job at some later time.

Early Days

The RNA Society emerged from a group of scientists engaged in the study of RNA Processing, a now somewhat antiquated term for the metabolic events that RNA undergoes between transcription and final function. As John Abelson discussed this year in Banff, the group was nucleated by a meeting in Brookhaven in 1974, but did not gather regularly until 1982 when Cold Spring Harbor Lab started holding a RNA Processing Meeting in late May. From the beginning, the RNA Processing meeting had an unusual format. Unlike other “focused” nucleic acid meetings at the time, RNA Processing was run like a giant group meeting. There were no invited speakers and, while all the lab heads attended, most of the talks were given by students and postdocs. Talks were short and rarely included much background. Often virtually duplicate talks were given by two different labs. As an outsider to the field, this drove me nuts. Why couldn’t anyone get up and summarize what was going on? It took me several years to appreciate the advantages of this format. (I note that, despite many discussions, this unusual organizational structure has not changed in 24 years!)
Another unique feature of the RNA Processors was that, as a group, they were scientifically inclusive. Instead of defining their field and protecting its boundaries, from the very beginning they welcomed everyone interested in RNA. Their thinking was that any kind of information about RNA could be helpful in understanding the complicated processing reactions they were studying. As a result, nucleotide organic chemists, biophysical chemists and structural biologists who were only peripherally interested in RNA metabolism started showing up at the meeting and finding a large audience interested in their favorite molecule. This inclusiveness gave a unique feeling to the meeting and was critical for the ultimate emergence of the RNA Society.
As a result of the explosive growth of the RNA Processing field and its intellectual expansionism, the meeting soon was exceeding the capacity of Cold Spring Harbor. By the late 1980’s, organizing the meeting had become a nightmare. The three or four organizers not only had to decide who got to give a talk, but how many members from each lab were allowed to come to the meeting. No-one wanted to be an organizer because you were sure to make someone mad at you. The quality of the meeting also deteriorated. Talks got ridiculously short (6 minutes) sessions got ridiculously long (midnight) and, worst of all, wonderful science could not be presented. The situation was acute. Should the group somehow divide into two separate meetings? Should the format be changed?

The Critical Decision

At a luncheon, held during the annual meeting in May 1991, past and present organizers met as usual to plan the next year’s meeting. Instead, a wide-ranging conversation developed about what to do about the future of the meeting. The consensus was that we didn’t want to break up into sub-disciplines. Indeed, many felt that RNA science was poised to impact other fields that were not yet represented and the meeting should continue to expand. On the other hand, many also enjoyed the intimacy of a small meeting (and the ambiance of Cold Spring Harbor) and worried that a huge meeting would lose the cohesive feeling that the group enjoyed. A compromise was adopted: we would alternate between a “small” meeting at Cold Spring Harbor and a “big” meeting somewhere else. The 1992 RNA Processing Meeting would be held somewhere in Colorado, hosted by Tom Cech and myself (with help from Walter Keller and Alan Weiner), and the 1994 meeting looked like it could be held in Madison.

A lot more was discussed at the 1991 organizers meeting. The possibility of a journal was raised and a publication committee appointed. The pros and cons of starting a RNA Society similar to the recently formed Protein Society were discussed, but I don’t remember reaching any decision. But looking back, everything was put in motion on that day.

The meeting at Keystone of 1992 was an adventure. As usual, Tom Cech was a wonder. He somehow convinced Keystone that we were a real organization and 300 plus people were actually going to show up on the last week of May. (It probably helped that they had a lot of empty rooms during the dead period after skiing season and before the summer season.) I remember that we worried a lot about how much to charge for the meeting. Keystone’s rate per person depended on the number of attendees and we had no idea how many would come to this new location. By making the conservative assumption that 350 would come, we could charge a fee similar to the previous year at Cold Spring Harbor. Instead, attendance jumped to about 500 and suddenly we were flush with extra money. This led to sumptuous upgrades at the coffee breaks and a surplus that helped finance the 1994 Madison meeting. In addition to this financial success, everyone was delighted that attendance was not restricted (but not happy that it had snowed). Importantly, the feeling of cohesiveness had not been lost with the larger group. Thus, the RNA Processing Meeting had successfully departed from Cold Spring Harbor.

Birth of the Society

In early 1993, we hit a snag. The surplus from the 1992 meeting was in a bank account in Boulder in the name of the meeting organizers. In the eyes of the government this might represent personal income and be subject to federal and state income taxes. (Tom and I never told Walter and Alan about this.) Thus, we had to form a non-profit organization. For a small fee a local lawyer drew up papers incorporating the RNA Society as a non-profit entity in the State of Colorado as of Jan 27, 1993. Tom Cech was President, I was Secretary/Treasurer and Joan Steitz, who was on sabbatical in Boulder at the time, was made Vice-President and President-“Elect”. We celebrated over a bottle of Chardonnay on my deck soon afterward. It was pretty informal, but we had safeguarded the meeting funds and the RNA Society was born.

Defining the formal organizational structure of the RNA Society and the critical appointment of Chris Greer as CEO occurred at a special meeting during the 1993 RNA Processing meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. Bylaws were subsequently written and elections held for council members and officers for the following year. By 1994, the Society was fully launched and the Madison meeting was termed “The RNA Processing Meeting of the RNA Society”. By 1996 the meeting left Cold Spring Harbor for good and the Madison meeting that year was “The First Annual Meeting of the RNA Society”. Cold Spring Harbor continued to have a more focused meeting on RNA processing. In 1995 RNA was started through the efforts of many, especially Tim Nilsen, but that’s another story.

Why Have a Society Anyway?

Looking back, I think the founding of the Society was the inevitable consequence of a cohesive group of individuals wanting to formalize something important that they had created together. One part of it was our excitement about the field itself. There was a collective vision that RNA science was just beginning to take off and that it would soon have a major impact on all of modern biology. Another part was that we wanted to preserve the democratic culture and the sense of inclusiveness. Another was to have a formal way to include and interact with RNA scientists from all over the world. Finally, by becoming a Society we could run “our” meeting and publish “our” journal. Subsequently, it has become clear that having a Society can help its members. As Abelson pointed out, the Society acts as an intellectual “home” in a scientific world that is often large and impersonal. Many of us work at Universities that only have a few individuals who can understand and appreciate our research. We would feel isolated without the support of RNA scientists at other places. Sometimes Society members at other Universities can tell our administrators that we really are good at what we do. In a sense, we are a group of colleagues who not only do experiments for each other’s edification and entertainment, but also try to maintain high standards and help one another professionally.

The RNA Society started for all the same good reasons that other scientific societies start. The challenge for the next decade will be to maintain our cohesiveness and not, like some societies, degenerate into an ill-defined organization that simply collects dues and people put its name on their CVs to show that they are serious players. (If that happens, I’ll resign.) This will not be trivial. Many of the individuals involved in founding our Society are no longer able to give it as much attention as before, either because they have other important responsibilities or because they are nearing the end of their careers. The next generation has already begun to take over. Another problem is that RNA science has become so successful that it is part of the mainstream of modern Molecular Biology. It is even featured in TV science programs. There are many competing meetings and Journals. Will lab heads continue to attend the RNA Society meeting? Will the Society meet the needs of RNA scientists from around the world, not just in the US and Canada? Will RNA, which has seen its ranking climb steeply in recent years, continue to grow in usefulness and reputation? Most importantly, will the youngest generation of students and postdocs grow to feel that they too are integral to the Society and its future? I will be watching with great interest.