Remarks on Sigma Xi's Pathway to the Future by Immediate Past President Tee Guidotti

March 30, 2018

Prepared remarks given on March 29, 2018, at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, during a reception titled, "Pathway to the Future: Sigma Xi's Vision for Science and the Society." 

CrowdEach of you has already felt the influence of Sigma Xi. Sigma Xi has been an important influence in American science for over 132 years, much of that time as a powerful shaping force. Your careers and even your daily life have been affected by the work of Sigma Xi, the people who Sigma Xi has recognized, and the influence Sigma Xi has stamped on American science. 

What distinguishes Sigma Xi from other organizations, such as our partner the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is that it is an honor society organized with a strong local presence at campuses and research laboratories, recognizing valuable science but also doing so most often in the early years of the awardees career. Historically, most of our members have been inducted at the advanced graduate or postdoctoral level after recognition by their research supervisors and senior professors who knew them well, and the induction took place through their chapters. Another difference is that through the Grants-in-Aid of Research (GIAR) program, Sigma Xi has a history of being a major funding source for peer-reviewed, investigator initiated scientific research and is still significant for providing seed money and start-up funds for young investigators. 

During the Depression, Sigma Xi, through the GIAR program, kept many scientists at the bench and in the field at a time when nobody else funded their research—remember that NSF and NIH did not exist yet.

When Sigma Xi was founded in 1886, there were few national honor societies in the United States and none devoted to scientific research. The founders saw this gap and felt that the existing societies were not aware of a crucial fact that they realized: our society is, and was then, grounded deeply on an understanding of the material world. They observed that universities, colleges, and honor societies did not recognize this and treated the sciences as latecomers to the intellectual table, supplemental at best to a more classical liberal education. This realization seems obvious in retrospect but that is because we are accustomed to the profundity of scientific knowledge, the social and economic benefits of research, and the value of validated knowledge and frameworks for understanding the world as public knowledge to help us solve problems. 

Today, of course, it is hard to visualize a satisfactory liberal education without some degree of science literacy in the curriculum. This is because scientific research is not about just collecting particular facts, but developing a context, a framework for understanding, and the integration of knowledge. It is part of the intellectual fabric of our times and Sigma Xi, together with our partner the AAAS, has been its leading advocate. 

The new organization, with its motto “Companions in zealous research” (Spoudon xynones, hence Sigma Xi), thought of science as having a unique central role in our culture and of research as a reliable way of knowing with integrity and rigor. They held that science embraced certain values that flowed naturally from the search for validated knowledge and in the service of society:

1. Sigma Xi describes its mission as celebrating excellence in research, supporting research, and benefiting society, which has always implied informing policy and opinion in a nonpartisan manner. That is why Sigma Xi was a leader in the coalition to build a publicly-supported scientific research infrastructure in the United States after World War I. You may remember that after the buildup to that conflict, America let its technological infrastructure decline. When the Allies were almost defeated at first by a technologically superior enemy in World War II and had to scramble to rebuild its capacity for science and technology. The lesson was not lost on scientists engaged in the war effort, nor did it escape observation that some of the most important technological breakthroughs of the war were coming from Britain, which already had a policy of publicly-supported research. That is why there was bipartisan and deep support after World War II for a permanent and publicly funded research enterprise that would support national defense, health, and economic growth and innovation. The taproot of creativity in science is basic research, and the system put in place to support basic research was designed to be publicly funded and accountable through peer review, not political preference. Congress agreed back then, and the result has been 60 years of material progress and an economy built on insights and innovation from science. 

2. The leaders of the coalition that brought this about, led by Vannevar Bush, also knew that science was part of American identity. Our culture assumes and depends upon validated knowledge of an objective reality, not belief alone. 

3. Two generations later, many people in positions of influence doubt the foundations of this social contract. They do not know how essential it has been, and will continue to be, to American and global progress. We hear the loudest voices expressing doubt and distractions about the validity of science and even of the scientific method. But here the situation is more complicated. We have been told that there is an erosion of trust in science on the part of society as a whole, but the data are actually quite clear. There may be skepticism about settled science in certain issues, most obviously climate change, but loss of trust in science and doubts about the value of science as a whole are largely a phenomenon seen inside the Beltway and in certain groups on specific issues where there is a clash with entrenched belief systems. Overall, about 70 percent of the American people express support for public funding of basic science, the same for applied research, the same welcome the involvement of scientists in public policy, and slightly more favor the involvement of scientists in setting environmental policy.  Obviously, there is disbelief and doubt on certain issues. However, it is hard to see evidence of a deep crisis of trust in science overall in these figures. The American people still overwhelmingly trust and value science.

4. Sigma Xi has always addressed the challenges facing world of science at the present time and we still do today. Most recently, Sigma Xi was the first major scientific organization to sponsor the March for Science, perhaps the most important movement of concerned scientists of the past three decades. The message of the March was not self-serving, to get more money, or even to oppose policies. It was to reassert this social contract in the United States that has existed since the 1940s: that science was to be considered a public good, the raw material of progress, no less than any natural resource. 

5. Sigma Xi has also been a leader in integrating the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Sigma Xi, like AAAS, is unusual in covering all fields of science and technology, and its founders and early leaders were, in fact, as often engineers as scientists. This is one reason people just love our magazine, American Scientist. Not only is it superbly written and illustrated, but it brings topics together from across science, not just one field. In this way, Sigma Xi has been a counterbalance to the fragmentation of STEM disciplines and one small force holding science together.

6. At the same time, Sigma Xi from the beginning has pushed for integrity, responsibility, and ethics in science. Our well-known report Honor in Science served as indispensable guidance to scientists and science managers for 34 years.

Today, Sigma Xi is recommitting itself to its historical mission and returning to the table after some difficult years. We have initiatives to benefit scientists across the “life cycle”: recognition of senior scientists, leadership training (especially in science communication), midcareer development for scientists, GIAR and the honor of induction for emerging scientists, and even outreach to young people interested in science through our new Explorers program

It was my privilege, during my year as immediate Past President and during the run-up to leadership to work with outstanding leaders from across the STEM disciplines to build a healthy and effective Sigma Xi to carry on its work, one hopes for at least another 132 years. 

I think the founders of Sigma Xi, meeting over coffee at Cornell on a snowy evening, knew that what they were doing was important. Had they lived to see it, I am sure they would have been proud but not astonished at how their fledgling club of like-minded scientists developed into an institution and how much it has contributed. 

There is much more to come from Sigma Xi but we can achieve more through partnerships and with your help. We need to move beyond the short-term responses to softening of support, the climate of anti-intellectualism, the cultural "science wars," and manufactured doubt. We need to bring forward a vision for scientific research going forward that embraces diversity, shared and open knowledge, sustainability, justice, and productivity with equity.  We would like to walk forward with you as partners, as “companions in zealous research”. Emphasis on the zealous.

Speaking for Sigma Xi, I appreciate that you chose to spend your evening with us tonight and I am proud to represent a fine organization. Good evening and have a safe drive home. 

Photo caption

Sigma Xi members, partners, and friends were invited to the March 29 reception to hear about Sigma Xi leadership's vision for the future of science and the Society. 

Related reading

Remarks from the reception by Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Jamie L. Vernon.

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