February 09, 2016
Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, is a venerable, rigorous, multidisciplinary, and prestigious society. That is the problem.
For most of the last 130 years, those four characteristics gave it strength and authority. Now, they risk becoming a drag on the society to the extent that they keep it anchored in the past and not looking forward. History can be a trap: there is a risk of stagnation and ultimately irrelevance if we rest on our (considerable) laurels. The task ahead is for an old organization to learn constantly to adapt and renew.
Sigma Xi can fairly claim to have been a cornerstone at every step of the emergence of the modern age of science before now: the foundation in the 1890s, the expansion in the 1920s, and the explosion in the 1940s, the democratization of science and its worldwide reach in the 1980s. It was a rite of passage for any promising young scientist to be inducted into Sigma Xi or the Research Society of America (its sister organization, which reunited with Sigma Xi in the 1970s). This laudable history has given the organization the right to a seat at the table when science policy is being discussed. Once at the table, however, we must earn our credibility and use our voice with wisdom, strategic thinking, and the authority that comes from current engagement in hard problems. What do we have to say? To answer this question, we turn to our values and our mission.
Back in the early days, Sigma Xi defined a community centered on science, a culture of scientific inquiry, and the values of integrity in seeking truth and knowing. We still stand for these things. Our task is now to support and defend research in a world where recognizing excellence is often viewed as elitist, past discrimination has left a legacy of distrust and lost diversity, curiosity-driven research competes with laser-like focus on application, doubt can be so easily manufactured through abuse of science, and scientists are thought of by decision-makers as just another interest group.
Our historic mission has three parts that remain relevant today: to support the scientific research enterprise, to foster integrity in science and engineering, and to promote public understanding of science. Astonishingly, through cycles of expansion and reversal (notably during the Depression), Sigma Xi has consistently delivered on all three, whatever its financial and organizational situation, most notably through, respectively, its uninterrupted Grants-in-Aid of Research program (since the 1920s), its seminal white paper Honor in Science (1983), and the remarkably popular and durable magazine American Scientist. These programs certainly need to be protected, but they also need to be transformed, revitalized for tomorrow, and put on a sustainable basis of support.
Sigma Xi had a difficult Great Recession and had to face the consequences of past fiscal exuberance, for example by giving up its overly grand signature building. The organization has overcome setbacks that would have sunk a less resilient organization. Current leadership has learned from the organization’s past problems and is focused on renewing Sigma Xi’s purpose and proposing sustainable, achievable, and focused initiatives.
To achieve its purpose and your needs, Sigma Xi needs your attention, ideas, and, most importantly, your active engagement. The goal is not to make Sigma Xi “relevant” for its own sake but to make it so effective that it becomes indispensable to scientists and engineers of the future.
Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH
President Elect, Sigma Xi