Sigma Xi's Pathway to the Future

February 28, 2018

Jamie Vernon At Podium Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society held a reception for members, potential members, and inductees on February 17, 2018, during the American Association for Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. 

The reception was part of a U.S.-wide tour to bring the Sigma Xi community of scientists and engineers together to share the plan for Sigma Xi's future. The events also introduce Sigma Xi to people who aren't yet familiar with the Society. 
Executive Director and CEO Jamie Vernon was one of the speakers and stated that Sigma Xi:

  1. is joining efforts to share the message that science serves everyone and everyone has a right to the benefits of science,

  2. will work toward restoring and preserving the public trust in science,

  3. will recognize and promote not only integrity in the scientific enterprise but also inclusivity and accessibility.

Prepared remarks by Jamie L. Vernon at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting on February 17, 2018: 

Hello, everyone. I’m Jamie Vernon, executive director and CEO of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. I am also the publisher of our award-winning magazine American Scientist

I’d like to welcome you to our reception. 

It’s really nice to see so many familiar faces and some new ones. I’m glad to see some of our past board members and chapter leaders. I believe a few of you have received one of our Grants-in-Aid of Research. Thank you all for being here. 

We’re also honored to have a few of the recently inducted AAAS Fellows with us tonight. We’re excited to be inducting some of you as new members in Sigma Xi tonight. 

The theme of this event is Pathway to the Future: Science and the Society. This event is part of a nationwide tour that we’ve organized to connect with our community of scientists and engineers around the world and to introduce Sigma Xi to those who aren’t familiar with the Society. 

We kicked off these visits with an event in Research Triangle Park in September of last year. This spring, we’ll be holding an event at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, and another in San Francisco.

Sigma Xi's Mission, History, and Programs

For those who are just getting to know us, we are Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. We are the largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers in the world. Our primary role has historically been to extend the honor of membership in the Society to those who exhibit excellence through their research endeavors. Our members are nominated by their mentors, colleagues, and peers based on their contributions or potential contributions to science and engineering. 

We have more than 500 chapters around the world. Some are more active than others, holding lectures, organizing science cafés, conducting outreach to elementary schools, competing in robotics competitions, working with the Girl Scouts to earn their science badges, carrying out citizen science projects, and much more. Our members can be found at the highest levels of academia, industry, and government, including Sigma Xi member and AAAS CEO Rush Holt, who is with us tonight.

You may have noticed in the slideshow that we have quite a long history dating back to 1886 at Cornell University where the organization was founded. More than 200 of our members have received the Nobel Prize in their discipline. 

Most recently, we were pleased to celebrate Kip Thorne's Nobel Prize for his work with LIGO on the detection of gravitational waves.

On April 20, we’ll be adding Kip’s name along with five other Nobel laureate Sigma Xi members to our Hall of Honor in Research Triangle Park. If you’re in the area, we hope you’ll join us for that event. 

As I said, the theme tonight is Pathway to the Future: Science and the Society. In fact, the entire year is dedicated to Sigma Xi’s view on the future of research. Our annual meeting this year will be held just outside of San Francisco. The theme of the meeting, which is being overseen by president-elect Joel Primack, is Big Data and the Future of Research. Stay tuned for details coming out soon.

Since assuming the role of executive director last July, I have initiated quarterly online conversations with our members to receive their guidance on what Sigma Xi should be doing to advance scientific research in the future. 

Thus far, we’ve discussed reproducibility and rigor in science, open access publishing, and we’re currently tackling the sticky issue of science advocacy

The Political Climate's Effect on Research

I don’t have to tell you that these are interesting times for science. During her opening address on Wednesday evening, AAAS President Susan Hockfield discussed some of the challenges science is facing in the current political environment. 

At the federal level, these challenges include the politicization of research funding, the removal of qualified scientific advisors, plus unprecedented restrictions on the use and dissemination of science at federal agencies, and the rejection of evidence in policy making through the dismissal of scientific consensus and the elevation of interests over facts. 

At the state and local level, we’re seeing efforts to distort science in textbooks and curricula by excluding scientific facts such as evolution, the age of the universe, and climate science. We’re also following activities in state legislatures similar to those in Washington, DC, including the marginalization of science in policy making. 

Science is becoming increasingly politicized. It’s not something we asked for or desire, but here we are. 

The Society's Response to the Politicization of Science

We must ask ourselves what is the role for organizations like Sigma Xi under these circumstances. It’s clear that we can’t just be bystanders. In fact, it’s important that we use global, multidisciplinary organizations like Sigma Xi and AAAS to deliver a message to those who can fix this problem of politicization. That message is that science serves everyone and everyone has a right to the benefits of science. 

Because of growing political turmoil, it’s clear that many people are not experiencing the benefits of science, including new technologies, safer food sources, cleaner forms of energy, better healthcare, and jobs. This inequality is leading to dramatic changes in the culture of science. Scientists and engineers fear that public trust in science is wavering, science is becoming less valued by our leadership, the desire to understand the mysteries of the universe will be diminished, and society will ultimately suffer due to this drift away from science. 

To address these fears and concerns, researchers of all types feel compelled to communicate their science to the public. Scientists worldwide are enrolling in communications courses and participating in workshops. They’re using social media and other online tools to connect with their communities. They’re pursuing skills to help improve the public’s perception of science and to influence policy decisions. 

But is that enough?

Ultimately, whether science is used in decision-making will be determined by one’s appreciation for the scientific process. Those who rely on science to guide their decisions understand that the scientific process is our best way of determining truth. They understand that rigorous, reproducible evidence is more reliable than anecdotes and cherry picked data. To develop an appreciation for science, it’s important to build trust for scientists and their work.

Sigma Xi's Pathway to the Future

The pathway to the future for Sigma Xi is to work toward the goal of restoring and preserving trust in science. Sigma Xi will stay true to its historical role of recognizing and promoting excellence in the scientific enterprise. The definition of excellence will be broadened to include not only integrity but also inclusivity, and accessibility. Sigma Xi will develop and maintain programs that foster each of these fundamental values and recognize individuals who promote them.

Integrity: Sigma Xi will continue to recognize researchers based on their demonstrated commitment to ethical research. The Society will provide ethics guidance through publications, presentations, and meetings. We’ll encourage conversations about the importance of reproducibility and rigor in scientific publications. Recently, we have become a sponsor for the 9th International Conference on Ethics in Biology, Engineering, and Medicine. We are also planning a symposium on ethics during the AAAS-Pacific Division meeting in June and during the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting in October. We are seeking additional opportunities to partner on ethics initiatives. 

Inclusivity: Sigma Xi has established an ad hoc Committee on Diversity to study the diversity climate within the Society and to make recommendations that improve Society experiences for all members. The UN Declaration of Human Rights promotes the equal access of science for all. Sigma Xi is committed to fulfilling this promise through our participation in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. Several additional diversity initiatives are also underway.

Accessibility: Sigma Xi is committed to making science accessible to all. As part of its mission, Sigma Xi promotes the public understanding of science through the publication of American Scientist  magazine and through communication workshops for its members. We recently began offering services to researchers to help them more effectively share their work with the public through digital and print channels. Sigma Xi also organizes the Student Research Showcase annually to help students develop effective communication skills. We are currently exploring new opportunities to help scientists and engineers share their work, including promoting open access publishing, translating content for international audiences, and reducing barriers related to technology and ability.
In 2011, Sigma Xi celebrated 125 years of service to society. The theme that year was honoring the past and looking to the future. In addition to looking toward the future, it’s time for Sigma Xi to shape the future through new initiatives focused on integrity, inclusivity, and accessibility. 

Tonight, you’re going to hear from a few speakers who each represent these goals. Sigma Xi President Stuart Cooper will discuss the importance of ethics and integrity in the research enterprise. Dr. Joe Hanson will talk about the importance of science communication. And Dr. Eman Ghanem will discuss Sigma Xi’s efforts to make careers in science and engineering more inclusive.

My hope is that you will hear something that inspires you to join with Sigma Xi in creating the future we need through science and engineering.

Thank you.

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. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety