How Do We Define Research Excellence?

by Jamie Vernon | May 21, 2019

A Sigma Xi membership certificate from 1901

Shown above is the Sigma Xi membership certificate of Meier Hilpert from 1901. Sigma Xi has recognized excellence in research for 133 years.   

Jamie L. VernonAs an honor society, Sigma Xi welcomes scientists and engineers as new members to recognize their excellence, or their potential to conduct excellent research. But, how should we define research excellence? And, what’s the point?

I can tell you that Sigma Xi does not exist so that researchers can puff out their chests and claim their superiority over others—far from it. In fact, for the last 133 years the Society has had one goal: to improve the human condition through research and innovation. We do this by: 1) supporting the health of the research enterprise, 2) promoting integrity in science and engineering, and 3) fostering the public understanding of science. Being a Sigma Xi member means that you work toward a better world for the good of all people, that you conduct research in an ethical way, and that you help your neighbors learn how research helps them.

Generation after generation has had to respond to what’s going on around them to carry the torch. Now it’s our turn, and the flame will not burn out on our watch. The current state of affairs, however, involves a seemingly growing number of people who question scientific objectivity and challenge scientific conclusions. One cannot underestimate the harm caused by the persistent perception that researchers operate within an “ivory tower,” rarely mingling with the non-scientific community, and are only concerned about their next scientific publication or grant. Overcoming this stereotype is critical to reconnecting with the primary beneficiaries of scientific and engineering research, that being the general public.

What we are facing, fundamentally, is a challenge of trust. Without the public’s trust, the work we do is discounted, marginalized, ignored, or underfunded. We must avoid a scenario in which science becomes inconsequential. We must actively put a face on research to which people can relate.

I have concluded that our definition of an “excellent” scientist or engineer must expand. Excellence may no longer be narrowly defined by breakthroughs in the laboratory; it is important to consider efforts to deliver the broader impacts of research.

Today, excellence in research communications is integral, not ancillary, to what it means to be an excellent researcher. The privilege to conduct scientific research is due in large part to investments made by the public. We owe it to them to share the promise and reality of our research endeavors. I believe Sigma Xi can and should provide leadership to vastly increase the opportunities for researchers to be strong research communicators.

Sigma Xi can be a leader in preserving public trust in research. 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 way we communicate research.

A year ago, my colleague Fenella Saunders, editor-in-chief of American Scientist, and I were part of the organizing committee for the Kavli Foundation’s Symposium on Science Communication. This symposium focused on how scientists who engage with the public directly—often through blogs or social media—can employ journalistic values that build trust with the public, in order to more successfully communicate with non-scientists. You can read the report.

Each Sigma Xi member has a part to play in building public trust through ethical and effective communication. If you’re already a member of Sigma Xi, I encourage you to write op-eds, speak at a local event, or volunteer in a capacity that allows you to tell the public about research. If you’re not sure how to start, contact me at While we seek to establish online training opportunities, you will find communications workshops and educational sessions at the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference. If you want to join our cause as a member, affiliate, or as a grade K–12 explorer, contact and find out how you can help.

Excellence isn’t limited to winning a Nobel Prize or getting a large grant. It’s about what you do for your community to build public trust in research in order to help change the world.


Jamie Vernon signature

Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO, Sigma Xi
Publisher, American Scientist

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