Interview with Yaffa Grossman, August 12, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Yaffa Grossman was a member of the Ecological Society of America and a professor of biology at Beloit College. In this interview she discusses working in the ESA’s public affairs office and talks about her involvement with the ESA’s report on the effects of genetically engineered organisms.

Interview Notes

Grossman was a Public Affairs Office staff memeber in the late 1980s and early 1990s; professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin at the time of this interview.

As a child, Grossman took part in Girl Scouts which provided outdoor activities that led to an interest in ecology. She went to Amhert College and took biology classes taught by Lincoln Brower and Marge Holland (who taught natural history).

Grossman received an M.S. degree from the University of Massachusetts and later a Ph.D. from UC-Davis.

Marge Holland, newly hired Public Affairs Director, then hired Yaffa to be a research assistant in the Public Affairs Office (PAO), housed in the AIBS Building at that time. They both moved to Washington in 1987. There was no ESA Washington Office then, only the Public Affairs Office. Duncan Patten was the Business Manager, located at Arizona State University.

Genetically Engineered Organisms

Grossman soon became involved with the ESA report on the ecological effects of genetically engineered organisms (GEO). She worked with Jim Tiedje and organized a workshop that led to a publication in Ecology. It was heavily reviewed before publication, but was never presented as the position of ESA. She briefly discusses this, noting that a previous report from the National Academy of Sciences suggested the effects would be minor. Later NAS published another report (book) on the subject, which was more balanced and more cautious. Al Gore formed a group focusing on GEOs, noting concerns about no regulation and no rules for evaluating GEOs. Even the industry urged the establishment of rules. The report was “released” in the Senate Building. Yaffa and Marge failed to provide a copy to all journalists in advance and were criticized for that. ESA had little experience with such things at that point.

The ESA Board did not allow calling the report a white paper or position paper, because it was thought ESA should not become involved with advocacy on politically sensitive topics. She thinks that now has changed and position papers are now common.

New Journal: Ecological Application

This new journal was proposed while she was on staff and she and Marge noticed that every person on the editorial board had an academic affiliation, which seemed odd to them, but was indicative of ESA’s orientation at that time. No actual land managers were involved initially. Yaffa commented that there was even some resistance to having a Public Affairs Office at the time.

Yaffa has only a few documents pertinent to the GEO report; most stayed at the PAO. Marge Holland has delivered her PAO files to ESA’s archives at the University of Georgia. And the Rose Hulman Institute, an Indiana-based engineering institute, gave ESA an award for the GEO work around 1990.

How would you characterize ESA now compared to then?

Grossman joined ESA in about 1979 or 1980 and her first meeting was at Bloomington, Indiana. The first day she was at Beloit College, she was asked to join ESA’s Public Affairs Committee, which she did. 

She and Marge organized the first press room for coverage of the annual meeting. This seems to have been very successful.

Position papers are now common and less controversial.

Other controversial topics? What was ESA's reputation?

Elliot Norris was Marge’s predecessor. He started a referral network for connecting ecologists with Washington staffers and others seeking objective ecological information. That seemed like a good idea.

ESA’s reputation “was good, but not wide.” There was no director of public affairs for a short time after Elliot left and Marge arrived. E-mail was first used in the office at this time. (See archived files of Marge Holland at the University of Georgia.)

Anything else?

Washington staffers seemed very young, even to her at the time.

ESA is still trying to decide how to emphasize science and prepare position papers; there's still confusion over ecology and environmentalism. 

The challenges of lobbying and maintaining tax exempt status continue.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


39 minutes


Yaffa Grossman and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Yaffa Grossman, August 12, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed April 16, 2024,