AAAS Adds Hotline to Its Expert On-Call Program

The American Association for the Advancement of Science program is designed to help human rights groups in need of quick answers in the field.

A program that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) runs to help nonprofit human rights groups recently expanded to provide real-time guidance. The change shows how an association can effectively put expert members to work, though doing so requires close attention to volunteer management.

This was a way to try to make it one more accessible to people. Just ask us a question.

Since 2008, AAAS has run a program called On-call Scientists, which connects human rights workers with scientists who can answer questions on a range of topics, from environmental issues to chemical weapons. The program was designed to assist agencies with longer research projects, but the association began seeing demand for more ad hoc assistance.

For instance, according to Theresa Harris, project director of the scientific responsibility, human rights, and law program at AAAS, a worker might want to know if a photograph taken in Syria shows evidence of chemical weapons. In March, AAAS launched the On-call Scientists Hotline, through which AAAS connects workers with experts without requiring a formal process.

“[On-call Scientists] works very well for forming longer term-relationships,” said Harris. “‘We have this report, we don’t know what it means because it’s all in science language and we need somebody to do a desk report to tell us what actually it says.’ But a lot of groups are still intimidated by even forming that question. So this was a way to try to make it one more accessible to people. Just ask us a question.”

The AAAS hotline uses a group of 10 volunteers who are experts in some of the most common questions the program has received, such as psychological trauma, environmental toxins, and impacts of extractive industries. That’s just a small portion of the 1,200 member volunteers who’ve raised their hand to participate in the On-call program, and though the vetting process is thorough, because of the size of the volunteer pool, AAAS only launches it when a request relates to that member’s expertise.

“We wait until we have a request from a human rights organization, then go to the roster to see who’s well-suited to work with that group,” Harris said. “When we identify those people, we interview them and ask for three references. Based on that response, we refer them to the human rights organization, and they make the final decision about whether this person really is a good fit for their work or not.”

Even so, the hyper-specific nature of human rights work means AAAS occasionally has to spread its net a little wider to find help. “We might have several people who are experts in a particular type of a coal mining or a hydro-geologist who has expertise in this particular thing, but they don’t speak French, and for this project it really requires a French speaker,” she said. In those cases, AAAS reaches out to its own cohort, but may also connect with its Science and Human Rights Coalition, a group of partner organizations whose members can potentially assist.

And all those volunteers who’ve signed up to take part but never get a call? AAAS makes sure to make use of their expertise and enthusiasm as well. It’s recruited experts on building surveys and program evaluation to deliver webinars to nonprofit groups. “They’re helping us with the outreach to make sure that the human rights groups are becoming more aware of what the potential applications of science and engineering are to their work,” Harris said. “And we’re engaging the volunteers as well.”

(Filip_Krstic/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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