Sudip Parikh

DIA Global

Ph.D.–turned–policy insider takes over world’s largest science society

Sudip Parikh has helped shape U.S. science policy as a staffer on a powerful congressional spending panel. He’s been a senior health care executive for a large nonprofit organization that manages several federal research facilities. And in January 2020, the 46-year-old structural biologist will become the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes Science) as the 171-year-old association pursues its mission to advance science and serve society.

“It’s a marvelous organization, and I’m super excited to become a part of it,” Parikh says. “I think every scientist has a place in their heart for AAAS. My goal is to turn those warming feelings into a valuable engagement with AAAS that will help us move forward.”

Parikh is now a senior vice president at the Drug Information Association (DIA), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit whose 12,000 members share a common interest in drug development. He spent 8 years as part of the Senate appropriations committee before joining Battelle in 2009.

The son of Indian immigrants who worked in the textile and furniture manufacturing plants of North Carolina, Parikh entered the University of North Carolina as a journalism major before switching into materials science and then to structural biology. In 2000, he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. A 1-year presidential management internship at the National Institutes of Health whetted his appetite for science policy administration, and he never looked back.

“My career goal has always been curiosity driven, and to make an impact,” he says. “Battelle is large and runs things, but as a nonprofit its money goes into making good things happen. And working in the Senate allowed me to have a great impact across an incredible breadth of issues.”

Parikh, who will also become executive publisher of the Science family of journals, will take over from neuroscientist Alan Leshner, who led AAAS from 2001 to 2015 and then returned this summer in an interim role after the retirement of Rush Holt. Parikh is a member of the board of Research!America and Friends of Cancer Research, two groups that advocate for increased federal support for biomedical research.

Here are excerpts from a telephone interview yesterday with Parikh.

On the challenges facing membership organizations

Parikh: In general, membership organizations have faced declining memberships, for a variety of reasons—cultural, demographic, and the speed of modernity. People just don’t join organizations like they used to. A lot of that is now played out online, or it’s transactional. You’re a member of Amazon Prime, instead of an organization that is mission driven.

That being said, when the values of an organization match that of its audience, organizations can have membership growth. We’ve seen it at DIA, and I think we can see it at AAAS as well. It’s a matter of having your vision click with their world view and reflect what they want to be. It doesn’t mean that the nature of a membership organization will stay the same. We need to experiment with what that will look like in the 21st century.

On the nature of advocacy

Parikh: We want to make sure AAAS is punching above our weight. So, what does that mean?

Advocacy is a complex sport. There is grassroots advocacy, which is so important. And there’s also the pinpoint precision that’s required to understand how decisions are made. And that means building up relationships over time, to create trust. It’s long-term work, and there’s no easy way to do it.

AAAS is a big organization, and it has considerable weight already. But we want to do even more.

On the future of subscription publications in an era of open access

Parikh: I don’t want to prejudge the question because I haven’t been on the inside. But going forward, it won’t be the same as it is now, I can guarantee that.

The world is changing. My kids don’t expect paywalls. They expect a free flow of information. So how do we make that possible? How do we do it and still pay for the incredible work that we provide?

The product is not the magazine paper or even the primary research article. It’s the curation, the process of understanding what’s important and what’s not, including the context that the news department provides readers. How do we, going forward, make sure those things are reflected in our business model?

Things move so fast, nothing stays the same for long. Even if the current model is working, we have to be thinking about what is coming next. If we don’t disrupt ourselves, somebody else will disrupt us.