Executive Director Shares Vision for Sigma Xi

September 27, 2017

Jamie Vernon at podium

Last night, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society hosted an Executive Director Meet and Greet to connect with Sigma Xi members and partners from the Society's dynamic network in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and the surrounding areas. 

President Stuart Cooper of Ohio State University introduced Jamie Vernon, who took office as Sigma Xi's Executive Director and CEO on July 1, 2017. Vernon stated that Sigma Xi can and should do more to help researchers become ethical communicators that share science with the public and that Sigma Xi can play a leadership role in restoring the public's trust in science.

Prepared remarks by Jamie L. Vernon at Research Triangle Park Headquarters on September 26, 2017:

Good evening everyone, and thank you for being here. I am Jamie Vernon, executive director and CEO of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society

Dr. Stuart Cooper, thank you for that kind introduction, and for making a special trip from your home state of Ohio to join us. You distinguished yourself in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin and your career took you from Wisconsin to Delaware to Ohio State University. Your path has included several years right here in North Carolina, where you served as professor, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs [at North Carolina State University]. We are incredibly fortunate that 54 years after your induction to Sigma Xi by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapter you are now serving in our top volunteer role, as current president of Sigma Xi. Earlier this year, it did not surprise me at all that you would make a different trip, to Washington, DC, to join the March for Science, which Sigma Xi co-sponsored. You are a leader in the Sigma Xi community and a strong voice for the sciences and research. Thank you again. 

In a moment, I will make a few remarks about my vision for Sigma Xi. First, allow me to briefly introduce and thank a few more leaders. 

Dr. John Nemeth, here tonight with his wife Grace, recently served as Sigma Xi’s interim executive director and CEO, leaving us just three short months ago. After earning his master’s degree and doctorate at NC State, John moved on to the Georgia Tech Research Institute, where spent 15 years as director of the Environmental Science and Technology Laboratory. He went on to become the vice president of Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, from which he retired in 2009. John honorably came out of retirement to serve as Sigma Xi’s interim executive director in 2015. Under his leadership, Sigma Xi enriched the value proposition for members and chapters by adding beneficial programs and improving communications between headquarters and our members. He was also instrumental in reconnecting the Society with our partners in Washington, DC, and across the nation. Thanks to John’s passion for the Society, Sigma Xi is now influencing federal policy on science and technology while continuing to promote STEM to a new generation. 
Two other leaders, Dr. Tee Guidotti from Washington, DC, and Dr. Joel Primack from Silicon Valley, who are not able to make it tonight, also deserve mention. They are our past-president and president-elect, respectively, and along with Stuart and John, deserve credit for the momentum we are building and the growth we are experiencing. As we take this reception event on the road across the country, Dr. Guidotti and Dr. Primack will host similar gatherings in other cities. 

Reception Group ShotI’m pleased to introduce some of our Sigma Xi Chapter leaders here tonight.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chapter: Drs. Michael Madden, David DeMarini, Drew Coleman, Richard Watkins
Research Triangle Park Chapter: Dr. Jack Bishop, Fenella Saunders
North Carolina State University Chapter: Dr. Igor Bolotnov
East Carolina University Chapter: Dr. Paul Fletcher 

In speaking with many of you this evening, I’ve been struck by what you’ve shared—reflections on the meaning of Sigma Xi in your life, concern about how scientific research and even facts themselves are increasingly under threat, and impressively, your convictions about the importance of scientific research and of ensuring the excellence, dynamism, and influence of research in every sector of society. We need to look no further than to the students who are here from NC State, UNC, and Duke University, to recognize the potential of scientific research to shape the world—and the stakes in this moment. 

I am heartened that we are in this together.  


So, what is my vision for Sigma Xi? Where are we heading in the future? What difference can we make? 

Our mission has and always will be the essence of who we are and why we’re here, to improve the human condition. 

We believe we can achieve this goal through research and innovation. 

To this end, Sigma Xi promotes:

  • the health of the research enterprise

  • integrity in science and engineering

  • public understanding of science

Since Sigma Xi’s initial founding in 1886, this has been our cause. 

Yet we also know that external forces and factors are constantly evolving, and that the pace of change is rapid. Our mission is steadfast, yet each generation must take up the challenges and opportunities of its day in proactive and impactful ways. So my vision for the future of Sigma Xi is guided by the transformations we see around us. 

I will highlight three examples:

  • In my view, the definition of a modern “excellent” scientist is shifting. Today, being a modern scientist is not only about making scientific breakthroughs, it is also about making that work relevant to the public. Today, excellence in research communications  is integral, not ancillary, to what it means to be an excellent scientist. The privilege to conduct scientific research is due in large part to investments made by the public. Therefore we owe it to them to share the promise and reality of our scientific endeavors. I believe Sigma Xi can and should provide leadership to vastly increase the opportunities for emerging and well-established scientists to be excellent in research and  research communications. 

    Atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, Kathy Hayhoe is a prime example. Dr. Hayhoe, the daughter of missionaries and an evangelical Christian, recognizes her exceptional status as a bridge between climate science and the religious community. Her message about the importance of being a good steward of the planet has given her access to platforms worldwide including a visit to the White House in 2016 to meet with President Obama to draw attention to public concerns about climate change.

    As a Society, we can and must preserve the best of who we are, while leading the way at the frontier of this kind of change. Two initiatives are at the center of this work:

    1. Grants-in-Aid of Research (GIAR): Since 1922, we have provided grant support to emerging scientists. Grant recipients tell us that these grants are a primary  factor influencing the early trajectory of their careers, the strength of their professional networks, and the career paths they choose. In the next five years, not only will we uphold this tradition, we will work ambitiously to increase our reach and the depth of our support, with the aspiration to provide more merit-based grant support to more researchers. I am proud that we increasingly see, and support, a diversity of applicants and that the pipeline of excellent scientists is as strong as ever. As we approach our centennial celebration of GIAR in 2022, we hope to expand this program by increasing both the number and size of grants given to promising young researchers.

      We’re fortunate to have members of our grant review committee with us tonight, Drs. Peter Harries and Drew Coleman as well as recent recipients of GIAR grants, Gabrielle Corradino and Patrick Kelly.

    2. Grants-in-Aid of Research Communications: This year, as a complement to our traditional Grants-in-Aid of Research program, we are exploring a new initiative—Grants-in-Aid of Research Communications. Through this initiative, we hope to make grants not only to support the application or practice of science communications, but also to support scientific research into  communication, i.e., the “science of science communications.” In the months ahead, we will work collaboratively to shape the parameters and operational aspects of this program. We are at the early stages of attracting support from individual members, chapters, corporations, and foundations—and we invite all of you to become part of this effort. I am very enthusiastic about the potential of this initiative to impact scientists’ lives and careers, as well as strengthen the impact of the sciences and research in the public sphere.

Which brings me to my second point: 

  • Today, there is unprecedented politicization of science and powerful platforms that can seed or fuel confusion. What we are facing, fundamentally, is a challenge of trust. I believe Sigma Xi can and should provide leadership toward restoring that trust. Our history of promoting ethical research uniquely positions us to lead the way in helping the research community apply the same ethics and integrity to the conduct of research, its application, and the way we communicate it. 

    I have recently joined the Steering Committee for the National Academy of Science’s Kavli Symposium on Science Journalism with other leading publishers, editors, and journalists. By bringing together media outlets that work with scientists as communicators, we hope to help each other do a better editorial job and at the very least develop an agreed upon set of principles for introducing scientists to responsible communications. Not only how, but why it’s imperative. 

    I envision the role of Sigma Xi as building public trust through ethical and effective communications. We can work to build a cohort of scientists from within our membership, and among our partners, that can be called upon to lead discussions of policy issues, in many cases the hot-button or controversial topics, and to engage with the public and policy makers when those issues need input from science. 

    Our community of nearly 100,000 scientists and engineers across disciplines and sectors can be better prepared and called upon to communicate in an ethical way—and not a manipulative way. 

    As with our Grants-in-Aid programs, this idea holds promise to be transformative at both an individual level, as well as societal level. I am eager to be in dialogue with students, faculty, leaders in business and government, philanthropy, and our members and chapters about ways to shape this work and partner in its execution.

Which brings me to my third point:

  • We are a powerful community with a differentiated opportunity. Many of us are proud members of associations in our respective disciplines—and the scientific community writ large is galvanized and supported by groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Rush Holt, who leads AAAS, is a Sigma Xi member and valued partner. Working with Rush, my predecessor John Nemeth and Stuart’s predecessor Tee Guidotti secured an office space for Sigma Xi at the Washington, DC, headquarters of AAAS. I now travel to DC each month to meet with Rush and a gathering of approximately 20 CEOs of scientific societies and associations. They all will tell you that it is a sign of the times that we are able to bring these diverse parties together to talk about the challenges facing the research enterprise. The ties that bind us across our associations, societies, and groups are very strong, and it is vitally important that we continue to engage and support these efforts. 

    Here is what makes Sigma Xi special, on a day-to-day basis, and what will increasingly distinguish us in the years ahead:

    • Multi-disciplinary excellence: Our excellence is cross-cutting. Evidence of this is in our local chapters, in the volunteer judges who uphold the highest standards at science fairs and competitions nationwide, the dialogue and presentations annually at our Symposium and Student Research Conference—this year, in Raleigh. Next year, Silicon Valley. My colleague who is our “beacon” for multi-disciplinary excellence is Dr. Eman Ghanem. I invite you to connect with Eman to learn more about our membership, chapters, and programs.

    • Professionalism and ethics: Sigma Xi’s highly influential publication Honor in Science  is an essential text in scientific freedom and responsibility. Its relevance has only grown since we’ve advanced toward 21st century science. Here I’d like to quote, Dr. Tee Guidotti, “The role in society played by scientists is changing. Scientific research is morphing, before our eyes, from its roots as a vocation, or “calling,” to a profession” governed by a formal code of ethics. Sigma Xi can be a broker for conversations about the role of scientists in society and especially on ethics. We will be exploring the possibility of publishing an updated version of Honor in Science that will account for recent changes in the research enterprise.

    • Influence through communications: Beyond the initiatives mentioned earlier, at our core is American Scientist and new on the horizon is the Chronicle of the New Researcher.  My colleague Fenella Saunders is the newly appointed editor-in-chief of American Scientist  and Dr. Andrew Joseph is spearheading our work on Chronicle of The New Researcher. We are especially proud to have relaunched the digital version of American Scientist—check it out at AmericanScientist.org! And please, connect with Fenella and Andrew to learn more about the future of these resources.

Many of you know Jasmine Shah whose 27-year tenure serving Sigma Xi is only outshined by her effectiveness in directing our finance and administrative areas. Based on her service to the Society, she was recently inducted as an honorary member. 

The newest member of our team, major gift officer Mike D’Ambrosio, works out of our DC office. He’s your point person if you’d like to learn more about how your philanthropic support can help make our vision a reality. 

And let me just add that the support of our donors and friends is vital to our mission: 

Mr. Russ Campbell, of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, we are so grateful for your past support and your presence here tonight.

Mr. Scott Levitan, of Research Triangle Foundation (RTF). A bit of history: when Sigma Xi moved from Yale University* in 1990, RTF made a $1.5 million dollar donation to make it happen and we are thankful for your generosity. Not only did you make it possible for Sigma Xi to relocate here but you bring the RTP community closer together, and we are thrilled to be in your beautiful space this evening.

In closing, I am so grateful to be in this cause with you, and that you have taken time to join us this evening. It is an exciting time to be part of Sigma Xi, as we look ahead to the future. We have so much to work toward, and to achieve together. 

Thank you, and have a wonderful evening. 

*The Society moved its headquarters outside of the Yale Campus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1973 and moved to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, in 1990.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. www.sigmaxi.org. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety