What Role Should Sigma Xi Play as a Research Advocate?

by Jamie Vernon | Jan 23, 2018

Sigma Xi members, affiliates, and explorers discuss critical issues in science as part of the Society’s Quarterly Conversations initiative. In light of the recent government shutdown, this quarter’s discussion will explore how Sigma Xi should represent the research enterprise in the political system. 

Ending the Government Shutdown Does Not End the Problems for U.S. Science 

Jamie VernonScientists may breathe a sigh of relief now that the United States government shutdown has come to an end, but there’s little reason to relax. Researchers around the world experience a ripple effect when the U.S. government fails to operate even for a short period. In addition to domestic challenges, such as reduced food safety surveillance, national lab closures, and the postponement of grant reviews and distributions, international collaborations involving federal employees are put on hold, U.S.-based digital resources including agency websites and data portals are not updated, and international travel procedures for federal employees going to conferences or meetings are disrupted. This uncertainty in the U.S. political system undermines the nation’s ability to serve as a reliable scientific partner. However, the nation’s research problems are not limited to the threat of future shutdowns.

The current political atmosphere in Washington, DC, has put the U.S. research enterprise on the defensive on many fronts—from the censorship of scientifically relevant words used in agency reports to indifference toward scientific evidence in the policy process. Federal funding for U.S. research continues to be at an historic low relative to GDP. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is systematically overturning regulations built on decades of environmental research. And despite opposition from the majority of climate scientists worldwide, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. These actions jeopardize the nation’s scientific standing on the international stage.

US Capitol Building U.S. investments in research have historically advanced global scientific progress while ensuring the benefits drive economic growth domestically. Current trends create doubt about the future of the U.S. research enterprise. In just the last week it has been reported that the U.S. dropped out of the top 10 in the Bloomberg Innovation Index for the first time since the gauge was launched six years ago and, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. National Science Foundation, China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of scientific articles. American research leadership appears to be eroding. This new reality raises a number of issues for Sigma Xi.

Sigma Xi has a distinguished record as an advocate in Washington, DC, on behalf of its members and the research enterprise. Most recently we co-signed a letter drafted by our partner, Research!America, calling for the 115th Congress to raise the sequestration budget caps imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act to allow more funding for research and development. In November, we joined with AAAS and many other scientific societies to encourage Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to protect critical graduate student tax benefit provisions. We plan to continue to take action on these types of issues, but we’d like to hear from you.

The Questions

This quarter, I’d like to invite Sigma Xi members, affiliates, and explorers to discuss the organization’s role as an advocate for the research enterprise. Some of the questions that would benefit from input include:

  1. What role should Sigma Xi play in advocating for the use of science and engineering in the policy process?

  2. Should Sigma Xi help members, affiliates, and explorers visit their representatives in Washington, DC, or in their local districts? If so, how?

  3. Should Sigma Xi be more vocal when federal budgets fail to prioritize investments in research? If so, how?

  4. What role should Sigma Xi play on the international stage regarding research?

  5. How can Sigma Xi members, affiliates, explorers, and chapters contribute to these efforts?

I encourage you to have conversations with members of your chapters locally, to comment on our conversation in the online community The Lab, to submit a post for publication on Sigma Xi’s blog, KeyedIn, or just send me your thoughts by email at jvernon@sigmaxi.org.

Jamie L. Vernon, PhD, is executive director and CEO of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society and publisher of American Scientist.

Top photo: Jamie L. Vernon

Bottom photo: The U.S. Capitol Building is the home of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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