Keeping the Public Trust

by Geraldine Richmond | Mar 17, 2020

Geri Richmond at Podium

In the modern world, we are barraged with a wide range of opinions on scientific issues that include the causes of climate change, healthy food choices, and the value of different medicines, including vaccinations. This diversity of opinions, many that question the validity of compelling data, parallels the growth in accessibility of information through social and news media outlets. Separating fact from fiction has also become increasingly difficult for the general population. 

On the positive side, public confidence in the scientific community has increased in recent years. As reported recently by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in scientists. This is up 14 percent from 2016, and this data is backed by a number of credible studies. 

As scientists and engineers, we should all be proud of this positive perception of our efforts. But this is not the time to rest on our laurels. As with many things in our world today, this credibility can easily erode. 

We all have a role to play in building and maintaining public confidence in the scientific enterprise. One does not have to look far to find recent reports of scientists and engineers accused of inappropriate professional behavior, many highly respected in their fields. Whether the charges or accusations will be validated is, of course, up to the legal process and the institutions involved. Although these cases are worrisome, they also provide an excellent opportunity for all  of us to examine what constitutes appropriate professional behavior in our laboratories, our meetings, and our communities. 

Many professional societies, including Sigma Xi, are taking these issues more seriously than ever in their development of codes of conduct and guidelines for dismissal of members or fellows. Discussions of the implementation of these guidelines may make some uncomfortable. But such discomfort is important as we seek the best solutions to ensuring confidence in the scientific enterprise. We look forward to your input as Sigma Xi works over the next year to further clarify the expectations and definitions of exemplary behavior of our members in our pursuit of research excellence, discovery, and innovation. 

I am proud to be president of an organization that has a 134-year history of electing and honoring members who embody the core values of the Society: excellence, integrity, diversity, scholarship, leadership, and cooperation. Sigma Xi’s distinguished history of service to science and society continues today through our chapters, events, and activities. 

As Sigma Xi members, we must never forget the important role we play as ambassadors for science, mentors, and leaders.

Geraldine Richmond is the Fiscal Year 2020 president of Sigma Xi. 

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