Membership Trends in the Health Physics Society: How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?

Pryor, Kathryn H.

doi: 10.1097/HP.0000000000000610

Abstract: The Health Physics Society (HPS), formed in 1956, is a scientific organization of professionals who specialize in radiation safety. Its mission is to support its members in the practice of their profession and to promote excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety. HPS has been a diverse body since its beginnings, encompassing professionals from different disciplines with an interest in radiation safety issues. At that time, health physics was just beginning to emerge as a distinct discipline, initially spurred by the development of the atomic bomb and amplified by the commercial use of nuclear power, and there was a need for a professional group to discuss issues and share ideas and experiences in the field. Over the following years, both the field of health physics and the ranks of the HPS membership experienced a steady increase in numbers and interest. HPS continued to grow in numbers and thrive through the mid‐1990s but then began to retract. Concern regarding the “graying” of HPS was being discussed as far back as the late 1990s, yet despite efforts to broaden the base of membership through additional membership criteria, the numbers of Plenary (now referred to as Full) members have continued to shrink. The “graying” of HPS is real—although age demographic data are only available for about the past 15 y (and are provided voluntarily), the shift in age distribution over this timeframe is clear. A recent survey indicated that over 50% of HPS members are over 50 y of age, and over half of the respondents plan to retire within 10 y. As members age, they convert to Emeritus membership or drop their membership altogether, with some members unable to continue for financial or health-related reasons. There is now an age gap—members in their 30s and early 40s are missing from the mix. Potential causes for declining membership may include smaller enrollments in academic programs, reduced employment opportunities, and societal factors. There appears to be reduced employer support for participation in professional activities and travel to conferences. Societal factors include easy access to professional information through the internet, balancing of family commitments, other volunteer opportunities, and a general decline in joining professional groups. So, what is the fate of HPS? We are not alone—other professional groups are experiencing the same overall trends in membership to differing degrees. A number of initiatives have been launched or are being considered by HPS in an effort to offset this trend.

*Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 902 Battelle Boulevard, P.O. Box 999, MSIN K1-68, Richland, WA 99352.

The author declares no conflicts of interest.

For correspondence contact the author at the above address, or email at kathy.pryor@pnnl.govj.

(Manuscript accepted 15 September 2016)

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THE HEALTH PHYSICS SOCIETY (HPS), formed in 1956, is a scientific organization of professionals who specialize in radiation safety. Its mission is to support its members in the practice of their profession and to promote excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety. The activities of HPS include:

1. promoting cooperation and communication among people engaged in radiation protection activities within particular geographical, functional, and technical areas through chapters and sections;

2. providing for the dissemination and exchange of information through scientific and professional meetings, education, and publications;

3. encouraging scientific, professional, and public education;

4. promoting scientific research;

5. encouraging and supporting the development and use of radiation protection standards and recommendations; and

6. pursuing other activities appropriate to radiation safety.

Membership trends in HPS have been a topic of discussion for the HPS leadership for over 20 y. HPS has been a diverse body since its beginnings in 1956, encompassing professionals from many different disciplines with an interest in radiation sciences and radiation protection issues. As the profession grew, the HPS membership ranks experienced a steady increase in numbers and interest from the time of its formation through the mid‐1990s. However, in recent years, the number of members has significantly decreased. This is a cause for concern for both HPS and the health physics profession as a whole. Potential causes for this declining membership trend are examined, including reduced employment opportunities, shrinking academic programs, waning employer support, and societal factors.

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As far back as the 1940s, there was emerging interest on the part of early health physicists in forming a professional group to discuss radiation protection issues (Kathren and Tarr 1974). The concept of a separate professional society was met with a less than enthusiastic response by certain other related professional organizations [e.g., the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA)], but there was sufficient interest in the formation of a society dedicated to radiation safety to move forward with the concept. On 13 May 1955, attendees at the Ohio State University Health Physics Conference held an organizational meeting and voted 180 to 15 to form a distinct professional society. Interim officers and a board of directors were elected for the newly-formed professional society. A number of committees were formed to launch the new group, with one having the responsibility of investigating the possibility of affiliating with several other existing organizations. The Affiliation Committee contacted a number of other organizations, including the American Institute of Physics, the AIHA, the American Nuclear Society, and the Radiation Research Society (RRS). After completing this investigation, the Affiliation Committee recommended that the newly formed HPS should stand on its own, and HPS was officially established on 25 June 1956 (Kathren and Tarr 1974).

During those early years, the field of health physics experienced a period of rapid growth, initially spurred by the development of the atomic bomb, and later augmented by the commercial use of nuclear power. The expansion of the field fueled a period of strong interest and steady growth in the ranks of the HPS membership. HPS began with 212 members, growing to 628 by the time of the first annual meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1956. By the end of 1957, membership ranks approached 800 and, over the first decade, the membership of the Society steadily increased, reaching approximately 3,000 by the mid-1960s (Fig. 1).

The fledgling HPS experienced many “firsts” during its initial decade of existence. Beginning in 1956, HPS held annual scientific meetings in the summer, covering a wide variety of topics in health physics, and, starting in 1967, added a multi-day Topical Symposium during the winter months. The Health Physics Journal was first published in June 1958, and continues to be published monthly to the present day. A Membership Handbook was compiled and distributed on an annual basis beginning in 1957. In addition, during the formative years of HPS, there was a strong interest in establishing a credentialing process. The American Board of Health Physics was subsequently formed and began administering certification examinations starting in 1960.

In 1959, HPS authorized the formation of local chapters, giving members an opportunity to share experiences and discuss radiation safety-related issues on a regional basis. There was a total of 30 local chapters formed by 1968, representing most of the geographical regions of the United States (Boerner and Kathren 2005). The membership also included a significant number of international members who were encouraged to join by their American colleagues. This led to the formation of international sections in France, Japan and the United Kingdom in 1962 and 1963. Ultimately, HPS members voted to establish the International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) in 1964 and to affiliate with IRPA as an Associate Society. With the formation of IRPA, the international sections were no longer needed.

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HPS continued to grow in numbers and thrive through the mid‐1990s and had increased their regional presence to 50 local chapters by 1996 (Boerner and Kathren 2005). Membership statistics were compiled and printed in the Membership Handbook beginning in 1975 (Fig. 2). The total membership numbers peaked in 1994 and 1995 at close to 6,500 members, while the peak in Plenary membership actually occurred in 1985 at 5,301. Interestingly, as the Plenary membership ranks began declining in the late 1980s, growth in other membership categories generally offset this loss. The Emeritus membership category steadily increased beginning in the mid‐1980s. The Fellow Award was established in 1984 and became its own membership category. The category of Associate member began to grow in size during the 1990s as well, providing an alternative for individuals having an interest in health physics but not meeting the criteria for Plenary membership. During this time period, HPS began offering an automatic Associate membership for 1 y to non-members who registered for one of the annual meetings, and later the same benefit was extended for non-member attendees at the mid-year topical symposia.

The student membership category also exhibited a steady increase in numbers from 1975 through the mid‐1990s. The peak in student membership during this period occurred in 1995 at just over 600 members. Student membership then began a steep decline through 2000, likely the result of lack of financial support for both academic programs and student scholarships, fellowships, and grants. Academic programs had largely been supported by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and its successors in the 1960s, but that support had all but disappeared by 1973 (Mossman and Poston 1988). Other students were supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, but this source also significantly decreased by the end of the 1970s.

Overall, while membership continued to grow through the mid‐1990s, concerns already were beginning to emerge regarding the “graying” of the HPS membership as a whole. Coupled with concerns about shrinking academic programs, HPS leadership began to discuss the aging demographics and declining membership trends toward the end of the 1990s.

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As HPS entered the new millennium, membership numbers continued to decline, particularly in the Plenary/Full member category (Fig. 3). In 2014, the number of Full members was approximately 2,500, and even when including the Emeritus, Life, and Fellow categories, the total was approximately 3,300 as compared to the peak year of 1987 for membership in these categories combined. Associate membership throughout the previous 15 y held steady at around 900 to 1,000, with the total membership of HPS ranging between about 4,300 and 5,000 in recent years. Interestingly, membership numbers jumped in all categories in 2013, possibly as a result of interest in radiation protection issues after the Fukushima accident (which occurred in 2011).

The Society leadership began to discuss the declining membership trends and shifting demographics of HPS much more seriously in 2000, issuing a position statement in 2001 on the “Human Capital Crisis in Health Physics” (HPS 2001). In this statement, HPS recognized the impending shortfall in qualified radiation safety professionals in multiple employment sectors, as well as the need to fill the pipeline to replace retiring professionals. They noted that the number of academic programs in health physics (and closely related fields) was shrinking, and the “renaissance” in nuclear power and increased use of diagnostic and therapeutic radiological procedures in medicine would cause the predicted shortfall to be even more acute. In 2002, HPS President John Frazier commissioned a task force to study the issue of the human capital crisis in radiation safety. Kevin Nelson of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, was appointed as the Chair, and the task force was populated with representatives from commercial nuclear power, academic institutions, state and federal regulatory agencies, health care, and the HPS leadership. The task force was charged with:

* Verifying the current health physics manpower status;

* Projecting future needs for radiation safety professionals; and

* Identifying ways to meet both the current and future needs.

The results were published as a white paper in July 2004 (Nelson 2004), confirming the need for at least 6,700 additional radiation safety professionals spread across all employment sectors in the next decade. The paper concluded that in order to educate these radiation safety professionals, strong and healthy academic programs with a stable source of funding were needed. However, the number of bachelors, masters, and doctoral graduates in health physics and related fields had declined by 55% between 1995 and 2002, and funding from government agencies was lacking. Although HPS provided limited scholarships and fellowships to deserving students, this support was not nearly enough to keep up with the need.

HPS used the results of the Task Force’s white paper to inform a revision to Position Statement PS015, Human Capital Crisis in Radiation Safety in 2005. The fundamental position, approved by the HPS Board of Directors, was as follows: “The HPS recommends that significant financial commitment by the Congress and federal agencies be made to support education of scientists and engineers, science teachers, educators in math and science, research associated with these programs (including health physics), equipment and supplies for science teaching in secondary schools, and scholarships and financial support to colleges and universities in science and technology.”

This position was further revised in 2013 to include an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education: “The Health Physics Society advocates for a substantial financial commitment by the Congress and federal agencies to support education of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians (STEM), STEM educators, research associated with these programs (including health physics), equipment and supplies for STEM teaching in secondary schools, and scholarships and financial support to colleges and universities in STEM. This support is needed to ensure an adequate supply of qualified scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians and, specifically, radiation safety professionals.”

HPS implemented a new governance structure in the mid‐2000s to improve efficiency and increase the engagement of the Board in the work of the committees. The directors were assigned to specific goals in the Society’s strategic plan and were responsible for managing the standing committees that supported their strategic plan goal. The list of standing committees was trimmed, eliminating some, creating others, and reassigning functions. This restructuring was done in part as an acknowledgment of the shrinking membership (and volunteer) base, necessitating more efficient operations.

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Fig. 4 shows the most recent age demographics for the HPS membership. Although age demographic data are only available for about the past 15 y (and are provided voluntarily), the shift in age distribution over this timeframe is clear. The most recent data for the Society indicates that 55% of those members responding are 50 y of age or greater. A recent joint survey performed by HPS and the American Academy of Health Physics (AAHP) indicated that over 50% of HPS members are over 50 y of age, and over half of the respondents plan to retire within 10 y (Pryor 2013). Importantly, while HPS receives a steady stream of applicants for membership, the numbers have not been enough to compensate for the loss of existing members. Various efforts have been made to understand the factors influencing member attrition, and it is not clear that any single factor is dominant. For example, older members at retirement may convert to Emeritus memberships, but some aren’t interested in maintaining a professional society membership or simply aren’t able to continue for financial or health-related reasons.

Overall, it is evident that HPS is experiencing an “age gap,” with lower numbers of members in their 30s and early 40s. The impact of this phenomenon beyond simple membership numbers was seen in 2014 when the Awards Committee, for the first time since its inception, found no nominees being put forth for the Elda Anderson Award, which is given to a promising young health physicist under 40 y of age.

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One of the more important factors influencing declining membership totals has been the reduction in the number of students graduating from health physics and radiation science-related academic programs. The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) has reported on 2014 enrollments in health physics programs and noted that fewer degrees were granted at all levels, particularly in doctoral programs (ORISE 2015). The ORISE report also stated that the graduate enrollment in 2014 was the lowest since the early 1970s. While 22 programs are listed in the ORISE report, 12 of these graduated fewer than five students out of their programs in 2014. In 2013, there were nine programs that graduated fewer than five students. Correspondingly, there was a steep decline in the numbers of student members in HPS beginning in the mid‐1990s and continuing through 2006 (Fig. 5). This situation has improved over the past 10 y, but it is dependent on the health and funding of the academic programs.

The need for academic program funding has been a cornerstone of the HPS’s legislative agenda, and PS015 (HPS 2001) has been used by HPS leadership to communicate this need during every visit to Congress and the federal agencies since 2004. Despite this, funding of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Integrated University Programs scholarship, fellowship, and curriculum development programs has appeared to be in jeopardy on an annual basis.

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An informal sampling of a few other radiation-related professional societies indicates that many professional organizations are experiencing the same declining membership trends, although to varying degrees. However, these organizations compete for essentially the same membership pool of radiation professionals. With the decrease in employer support for professional activities, members must carefully consider membership in multiple professional societies. They are very likely to select only one or two memberships in professional organizations and will pick the one(s) that provide the most value to them. Examples include the AAHP (although most AAHP members are also members of HPS), the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the American Chemical Society’s Nuclear Chemistry and Technology Division, AIHA, the American Nuclear Society (ANS), and RRS. While all of these organizations fill a slightly different niche, they all attempt to recruit from an overlapping pool of radiation professionals:

* The roster of the American Academy of Health Physics (AAHP) (the organization for those who have achieved certification by the American Board of Health Physics) has remained relatively static at approximately 1,300 since 2003. Most (but not all) AAHP members are also members of HPS;

* The American Nuclear Society (ANS) is an international professional scientific and educational organization with a mission to provide professional development and a forum for sharing information and advancements in nuclear science and technology. The vision of ANS is to be the “recognized, credible advocate for advancing and promoting nuclear science and technology.” The ANS currently has a membership of approximately 11,000 engineers, scientists, administrators, and educators (ANS 2016). ANS has seen an approximately 5% decrease in membership over the past 15 y, particularly among working professionals; by comparison, HPS membership has decreased by 14% over the same period. The number of student members has increased over the same period; the trend is dependent on the overall health of the academic programs in nuclear engineering; and

* The Radiation Research Society (RRS) is a professional society focused on the advancement of research in the properties and effects of radiation primarily in the natural sciences (RRS 2016). The RRS currently has approximately 1,500 members, coming from a number of different scientific disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine. Members who identify themselves as from the biological sciences or as “multi-disciplinary” make up nearly 70% of the total membership. The RRS has experienced a decrease in the number of full members over the past 10 y, while their emeritus numbers have increased. The RRS Full and Associate membership categories are very similar to those of HPS, and the membership dues are roughly equivalent in both professional societies. To try and retain younger members, the RRS instituted junior and senior Scholar-in-Training (SIT) membership categories in 2008, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students versus post-doctoral fellows and residents. The SIT program is intended to encourage young scientists to join the RRS while still in school and to retain them post-graduation. This program has helped to compensate for some of the loss of older full members, modestly increasing the total membership ranks.

It is worth noting that declining membership in professional societies and associations is, in fact, a relatively common problem and not isolated to radiation-related professional organizations. In 2012, the Association of Management and Marketing Resources noted a number of trends influencing the health of associations and professional societies, including difficulties in maintaining the attention of their members and the need for strong peer communication to recruit and retain younger members who find their information through other channels and who don’t see the need for associations (Carey 2012). It was suggested that the value of face-to-face networking needs to be stressed as the primary means of building contacts within a chosen profession; organizations need to view social media as a supplemental communications strategy. Such observations are supported by the Center for Association Leadership [American Society of Association Executives (ASAE)], an association for those who manage professional societies and associations and whose foundation conducts research on association management and leadership. In papers published on membership trends and member engagement in professional societies and associations, the ASAE makes clear that many associations and professional societies are experiencing similar trends in declining membership and that the challenge to all of these organizations is to provide sufficient value to both potential new members and existing members to reverse the trend, as well as to attract younger, early career members.

Societal changes also are influencing membership trends in professional organizations. Coerver and Byers have outlined many of the factors that challenge associations and professional societies in The Race for Relevance (Coerver and Byers 2011). These include competition for time and attention of potential members with family, church, and other volunteer activities; expectations for increased value of membership; generational differences; consolidation and specialization; and competition between organizations. Society itself has changed over the last 60 y—we are not the same professional population that existed at the time of HPS’s birth in 1956. Furthermore, there is a general trend toward specialization in professional societies. According to Coerver and Byers, professional specialists are interested in gaining knowledge and networking with others in their specialty so that it is increasingly difficult for broad-scoped professional organizations to serve their diverse specialty groups. This implies that smaller, niche-oriented organizations could potentially be more successful, but by definition, there will be fewer members generating fewer resources to support their missions.

HPS has attempted to address this latter issue through the creation of professional sections, which afford members the opportunity to network with others in their specialty. There are currently nine sections of HPS—some are currently vibrant and active, and others are one step away from life-support. The current sections are:

* Academic, Industrial and Research Radiation Safety (AIRRS);

* Accelerator; Decommissioning;

* Environmental/Radon;

* Homeland Security;

* Medical Health Physics;

* Military Health Physics;

* Nonionizing Radiation; and

* Power Reactor.

The sections have evolved in response to the needs of the HPS membership as a whole. For example, the Environmental and Radon sections were originally separate sections; however, they both experienced declining membership and were combined into a single section in an effort to reenergize and attract new members. The AIRRS section grew out of the Radiation Safety Officer section, which had been languishing for a number of years. The Nonionizing Radiation Section, formed in 2013, is the newest section.

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There is no magic bullet that will increase the membership ranks of HPS (or any other professional society, for that matter). The first step is to increase the number of radiation professionals (NCRP 2015) eligible to join HPS. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) Statement No. 12, Where are the Radiation Professionals (WARP)?, provides a number of recommendations to increase the number of radiation professionals, and HPS strives to provide valuable resources for those new professionals. The HPS Board of Directors has recently begun a new strategic planning initiative, where the Society’s mission, vision, and values were extensively discussed. Recently, President Nancy Kirner published the results of this discussion (Kirner 2016):

* Mission (or purpose): HPS promotes excellence in the science and practice of radiation protection;

* Vision (a desirable goal that may be a stretch to achieve): HPS members lead the world in radiation protection; and

* True North Statement (the direction that every aspect of the organization is working toward): To be the home for radiation protection specialists and the trusted source of credible information about radiation.

This strategic planning initiative is intended to refocus HPS on what the members believe is important and what the Society will look like in the future. The HPS leadership plans to poll the members for input on the direction that HPS should take. The more difficult task is to understand what non-members perceive as member benefits that are enticing enough to convince them to join.

One of the keys to attracting and retaining members is to get them engaged in the activities of HPS. Members need to feel that they are personally invested in the success of HPS and that they are receiving equal value for their investment of time and effort. This is a difficult task to accomplish in the face of shrinking employer support and travel budgets. However, it can be facilitated on the individual level with encouragement from more established senior members. Early career professionals can benefit greatly from mentoring and networking on the local level and from encouragement to participate at the national level.

At a more basic level, the existence of interesting and well-paying jobs available in radiation-related professions needs to be promoted to potential future students; communicating these opportunities will aid in filling the pipeline with future professionals. HPS has suffered somewhat from a lack of name-recognition; the term “health physics” is generally unfamiliar to the public, including potential students. The issue of the name of HPS and the health physics profession has been debated as far back as the birth of HPS, but despite discussion every few years, this debate has never been completely resolved. Nonetheless, HPS has worked diligently to attract, engage, and retain student members. Student membership in HPS is encouraged through low-cost dues; the first year is free to students, and subsequent years’ dues are currently $40. Students are also allowed to continue their student membership status for 1 y post-graduation while they seek employment in the field. HPS awards a number of scholarships, fellowships, and academic grants to students and encourages student attendance at annual meetings through the awarding of travel grants.

The Student Support Committee began as an ad hoc committee in 2010 under then-President Ed Maher and was converted to a standing committee in 2011. This Committee is composed of students and recent graduates from the academic programs, and the Chair is a member of the President’s Advisory Board, which entails attending all of the meetings of the Board of Directors in an advisory capacity. The Student Support Committee has reinvigorated the mentorship program, rebranding it as “HP Connect” and promoting it directly with the academic programs, in the Health Physics News, on the HPS’s website, and on social media. The Student Support Committee solicits opportunities for students to participate on projects with the other standing committees of HPS. They distribute information on employment and internship opportunities with the representatives of the academic programs, as well as information on HPS scholarships and travel grants. The Student Support Committee has also sponsored a well-attended “Quiz Bowl” and promoted the “Student Reception” at the annual meetings.

HPS continues to seek ways to increase the value of membership, including providing discounts on NCRP reports and copies of American National Standards Institute/HPS N13 and N43 standards and International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements reports at no cost. Recently, HPS has begun posting annual meeting presentations on the “Members Only” section of the website as a benefit for members who cannot attend the meetings. A large continuing education program is offered at both the annual and mid-year meetings, and both professional enrichment program courses and continuing education lectures can be downloaded for a modest fee.

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HPS faces a number of challenges in maintaining future membership levels, as do many other professional organizations. HPS of the future may simply be a smaller organization than in years past. A focus on understanding what HPS members believe is important and what the Society will look like in the future is an important component. This strategic planning, coupled with new initiatives to increase member engagement, clearly communicate radiation-related job opportunities, and attract and support students, should help to improve membership trends. HPS stands ready to support the NCRP in implementing WARP recommendations and in providing professional resources and support to the next generation of radiation protection professionals.

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