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From the President (2008-2009)
American Scientist Magazine
November-December 2008 · Volume 17, Number 6

Developing Human Capital

In August, the 2008 Summer Olympics proudly showed to the world athletic teams filled with multi-cultural diversity and the value of heritage. The U.S. team, for example, was a beautiful quilt of complexions, ethnicities and abilities. The cohesiveness of the teams and the support given by each member to each other in track and swimming relays, gymnastics, water polo, basketball and volleyball, to name only a few, were marvelous examples of what can be accomplished through genuine mutual support and encouragement. As a scientist or engineer, one also would hope that our U.S. and global scientific and engineering community would provide evidence of such diversity, support and encouragement. Sadly, data from the top 50 U.S. academic departments of science and engineering lead to a different view. In 2005, Donna Nelson and Diana Rogers published an analysis that indicated that, among these, women and minorities are significantly underrepresented, and that: 1) there are very few tenured and tenure track women, even though a growing number of women are earning Ph.D.s in science and engineering, 2) tenure track minority women faculty are virtually absent, 3) only 3-15 percent of full professors are female and 4) the percentage of women receiving Ph.D.s in science disciplines greatly exceeds the percentage of female assistant professors. Without women and minorities serving as role models and mentors, especially in the senior ranks, the relatively few young underrepresented scientists and engineers will continue to struggle and may well give up their careers.

Why should we care? This was answered most eloquently in 2006 by Mary Beckerle when she was president of the American Society for Cell Biology. She wrote: "Science needs the brightest, most innovative, creative, energetic and dedicated minds. Those will come in all colors, creeds and genders…we need to develop our human capital and access the depth and breadth of our talent pool."

And what about Sigma Xi? The most recent data available for the Society from a survey of more than 39,000 members indicates that 26 percent of our members are female, while faculty data from 2002-2004 for the top 50 institutions averaged only 14.2 percent. The Society's members are 86 percent Caucasian; 2 percent Hispanic; 2 percent African American; 2 percent Native American, Asian American and multi-racial individuals; with another 10 percent being international members. Similar proportions are found in the top 50 institutions. So, while we appear to reflect or better the current gender and ethnic proportions in today's scientific and engineering community, we must work towards equity and even increase these underrepresented groups or risk losing out on their potential. The scientific pipeline that carries young scientists from their earliest grade school training through to the academic ranks is at risk and leaking at both ends. The foundation strategies we need to adopt to increase the representation of these groups both in science and engineering and within our Society have been developed and led by our Committee on Diversity, as well as such notable programs as JustGarciaHill, MentorNet and others. Another set of foundation strategies resides in active Sigma Xi chapters, which must provide the action and energy to carry out the work of mentoring, recognition, support and inclusion of underrepresented scientists in an often-harsh, and at best, uncaring environment.

Our chapters and membership around the world are uniquely poised to create the necessary feelings of inclusion and companionship that will serve to encourage talented underrepresented scientists and engineers to persevere and to continue to contribute to scientific knowledge, rather than leave science altogether. We must seek out our female and minority colleagues and engage them as active participants in our chapters, and the Society as a whole. We must include and encourage them to serve as committee members and officers. We must find ways to strengthen chapters at minority institutions. And, we must find ways to increase the relevance of the Society for all members, young and old, minority and majority, male and female. These actions will serve not only to strengthen Sigma Xi but, perhaps more importantly, the world-wide scientific and engineering community.

Ann H. Williams

Sigma Xi has recently begun collecting demographic information on its members. Sigma Xi is able to provide many student programs through generous donations from a variety of supporters. Often, these donations are based on Sigma Xi's ability to demonstrate that its programs serve a diverse audience. This information is what has been collected to date on the ethnicity of our members. Last updated February 2009

22Pacific Islander
233Black/African American
39American Indian


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