At the General Assembly, the IAU Means Business

IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti

IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti presided over the first Business Session of GA 2018. Assisting were Assistant General Secretary Teresa Lago, President-Elect Ewine van Dishoeck, and President Silvia Torres-Peimbert. (IAU / Mahdi Zamani)

The focus of every IAU General Assembly (GA) is science — in particular, collaborative science conducted across national borders. That’s what you’ll find in the Symposia, Focus Meetings, Invited Discourses, and most other scientific sessions here in Vienna. But another essential component of every GA is the business of running the Union, which is accomplished by the IAU Executive Committee, the staff of the IAU Secretariat, representatives of the National Members, IAU Committee members, and hundreds of volunteer Individual Members and Associates who participate actively in the IAU’s Divisions, Commissions, and Working Groups. These efforts are the focus of the two GA Business Sessions, the first of which (“GA I”) occurred on Tuesday afternoon, 21 August, and the second of which (“GA II”) will be held Thursday afternoon, 30 August.

New National Members

General Secretary Piero Benvenuti served as master of ceremonies at GA I in Hall A. He began by reviewing the agenda and reminding everyone that whereas on matters of science it’s the Individual Members who vote, on matters of business it’s the National Members. The first vote of the meeting would be the admission of new National Members. With the unanimous assent of the assembled representatives of the current National Members, three countries were welcomed back into the Union after absences of various durations: Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco. The last was admitted as an Interim or Prospective Member (meaning the country doesn’t pay dues and doesn’t have voting rights); if a pending proposal is approved at GA II, that category will be renamed Observer, and it is hoped that that Morocco and other Observer nations will eventually be able to upgrade to National Members.

Seven additional countries were admitted to the IAU for the first time: Cyprus, Ghana, Madagascar*, Mozambique*, Slovenia, Syria*, and United Arab Emirates. The ones with asterisks have Prospective/Observer status. With 10 new National Members, the total number in the Union rises from 73 to 83. That’s a lot of countries actively engaged in astronomy!

Next Piero reviewed the Union’s finances and demonstrated how the Secretariat’s new accounting software — a French program appropriately named CIEL (“Sky”) — enables much smarter management of the budget. Then he reviewed two new proposed membership categories: Junior Members (recent doctoral recipients) and Honorary Members. A question yet to be resolved by the National Members is whether they will each be allowed to nominate one Honorary Member per triennium or whether countries with larger numbers of Individual Members will be allowed to nominate a proportionately larger number of Honorary Members.

Strategic Planning

IAU President-Elect Ewine van Dishoeck and Vice-President Debra Elmegreen then provided a succinct overview of the Strategic Plan for 2020 to 2030, which members will get to vote on at GA II on 30 August. The plan is available in booklet form from the IAU booth in the Exhibition and can be downloaded in PDF form from the IAU website. The original IAU Strategic Plan, for the decade ending in 2020, was developed in the wake of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009 and was designed to build on the strong global networks established during that global celebration of our field.

The IYA marked a turning point for the Union. Instead of looking only inward, the IAU looked outward to how it could use astronomy not just to advance our understanding of the Universe, but also to create a better world here on Earth. Among the very visible outcomes of this effort are three IAU satellite offices: the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in Cape Town, South Africa; the Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) in Tokyo, Japan; and the Office for Young Astronomers (OYA) in Oslo, Norway. Among the new initiatives envisioned in the plan for the next decade is the establishment of an IAU Office for Astronomy Education (OAE). Assuming the Strategic Plan is ratified at GA II, a call for proposals to host that office will go out soon thereafter.

IAU Vice-President Debra Elmegreen

IAU Vice-President Debra Elmegreen shared details of the IAU Strategic Plan for 2020–2030. It was subsequently revealed that she will become President-Elect in 2018 and President in 2021. (IAU / T. Heenatigala)


Another key element of the IAU’s business is to consider Resolutions on important issues of science and policy. As noted in an earlier article, IAU members will be asked to vote on five Resolutions at GA II, one of which is adoption of the new Strategic Plan. Resolutions Committee Chair Bruce Elmegreen summarized all five and encouraged attendees to (a) read them carefully before the vote and (b) contact him with any questions, comments, or concerns. There will be time for discussion at GA II before the votes are called.

Piero noted that Resolution B4 is likely to get the IAU into the news, as it deals with how we refer to the redshift-distance law that describes the expansion of the Universe — something likely to be of great interest to the public. He gave a spirited explanation of Resolution B4’s recommendation that instead of saying “Hubble law,” we should henceforth call this relationship the “Hubble-Lemaitre law”. He also pointed out that to avoid the problem the IAU had in 2006, when it was widely criticized for allowing a small fraction of the membership to define the word “planet” at the GA in Prague, Resolution B4 will be put to an electronic vote after the GA so that all IAU members have a chance to weigh in.

New IAU Officers & Potential GA Hosts

Two items of particular interest rounded out the agenda. First, the Nominating Committee’s recommendations for new officers for the 2018–2021 triennium were unveiled:

  • President Elect: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (US)
  • Assistant General Secretary: Ian Robson (UK)

Because Debbie Elmegreen is currently a first-term Vice-President, the IAU leadership asked the Division Presidents if any of them would be willing to step up to serve what would have been her second term, and John Hearnshaw (NZ), President of Division C, volunteered. In addition, three new Vice-Presidents will begin their first terms in 2018:

  • Laura Ferrarese (Canada)
  • Daniela Lazzaro (Brazil)
  • Junichi Watanabe (Japan)

Second, the identities of the four candidates to host the XXXII GA in 2024 were unveiled. They will present their final proposals to the Executive Committee this weekend in the following order, which was decided by a random drawing from a box:

  • Rome, Italy
  • Puebla, Mexico
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Cape Town, South Africa

Piero closed the session by encouraging everyone to come to Session II on Thursday, 30 August, to vote on the Resolutions and to learn where the 2024 GA will be held. In the meantime, visit the Exhibition and drop by the booths of the Korean Astronomical Society (0-08) and Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (0-09) to plan your visit to Busan for the XXXI IAU GA in 2021.