Sigma Xi Values and Their Relation to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

by Jason Papagan | Mar 29, 2021


The following is a guest post written by President-elect Robert T. Pennock:

In November 2020, Sigma Xi adopted a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion resolution at the Society's Virtual Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference. The resolution states, “Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is committed to building an equitable and inclusive scientific and engineering community for all persons without regard to ethnicity, race, creed, cultural background, gender identity, national or native origin, physical ability, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation, and recognizes that all these vast diversities exist among, and benefit our membership.”

In my remarks at the meeting, I echoed these values and emphasized the Society's responsibility and commitment to the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Below is a transcript of those remarks:

"I want to join with the rest of the Society in extending my congratulations to those of you who have just been inducted into Sigma Xi, and I’d like to use my 10 minutes to say a bit of what I think that means.  

Being elected to Sigma Xi is not like receiving an award that one displays on a shelf or just adds to one’s CV. Rather, it is an honor that involves being welcomed into a community. One is elected to membership. It is to be welcomed into a society of individuals who are called to a life of research, who share scientific values, and who commit to support each other in our shared passion to discover what might be learned about the natural world and to make it a better place for everyone.

I have spent the last six years collecting data in interviews from over 1100 scientists about the values and character virtues that are important for excellence in science. They center on curiosity and honesty. They include perseverance, objectivity, and others that together constitute integrity. Sigma Xi has always carried the banner for scientific excellence and integrity. The honor of being elected to the Society is the honor of being recognized as a role-model for others who may also be inspired to join in this curious vocation.

I’d like now to illustrate how these ideals are exemplified in the resolution on diversity, equity, and inclusion that was adopted by the Sigma Xi Assembly of Delegates. The resolution is new, but I contend that the values it describes were already contained in the fundamental values of the Society.

Let us begin with diversity.

Diversity refers to the human differences that constitute the richness of our common humanity. Sometimes we let our differences divide us rather than make us stronger together. But we know in science that it is by combining our diverse perspectives that we are better able to discover a unified understanding of the world.

The basis of science is the rejection of authority in favor of evidence. The idea is that nobody has any special privilege to pronounce what is true about the world. Rather, we are called to be humble to the evidence. That’s one of the key scientific virtues.  

It does not matter the sex nor race nor party nor creed of who brings forth a hypothesis; it is the evidence they present that determines whether science should or should not accept it.  

This is what we aim for with the values of universality and objectivity. These notions lead us to the second element of the resolution – equity.

Equity refers to evenhandedness, whereby judgments are made in ways that are fair and unbiased. In law and ethics, this ideal is depicted as the goddess Justitia, wearing a blindfold and holding the balanced, even scales of justice. The even scales denote the methods of judgment are to be unbiased. The blindfold denotes that the person holding the scales must be unbiased as well.

As we noted, scientific conclusions are to be drawn on the basis of the evidence, without bias in favor of one’s biased preference of one hypothesis over another. The equivalent scientific image should depict Justicia as a scientist in a lab coat holding an analytical balance and wearing a facemask to avoid sample contamination.

The point we should see in the DEI resolution is that this basic principle of objectivity in scientific method—aiming to make assessments in fair and unbiased procedures—applies in our treatment of people as well, which takes us on to the value of inclusion.

Inclusion refers to the openness of a community that, without prejudice, welcomes everyone into fellowship. This value flows from a key part of what is expressed in the name and motto of Sigma Xi, which is Companions in Zealous Research. There is much that could be said about this, but I will just point to the very roots of the society.

The Sigma Xi Constitution of 1886 speaks of the importance of “Friendship in Science." It states, "While those whose heart and soul is in their work are coping with the great problems of nature, let them remember that the ties of friendship cannot be investigated, but only felt. Let them join heart and hand, forming a brotherhood in Science and Engineering; thus promoting and encouraging by those strong, personal attachments of friendship, the highest and the truest advances in the scientific field.”

The reference to “brotherhood” reflects the gendered terminology of the day, but this scientific “fraternity” was not limited to men; five women were elected to full membership within the first three years. Inclusion in these “ties of friendship” and the ideals of science is, of course, unrestricted and we must work to strengthen them.  

Today we speak of a fellowship in science and engineering where all curious seekers joyfully join in seeking to discover truths about the natural world and to create technologies to improve the human condition.  

Some people get cynical about ethical ideals. We know that we are not perfect.  Sometimes we are blind to our biases. The methods of science are crafted to help us keep from fooling ourselves. Scientific methods continue to be improved when biases are identified, and we must strive to do the same thing in our own character and mindset. These are ideals we aspire to. These are the values that make us who we are as scientists. This is the banner that Sigma Xi waves.  

The theme of next year’s conference will focus on another implication of these values, namely the responsibility that science has to improving the human condition. We do this with our curiosity, our honesty, and our devotion to the unbiased pursuit of discovering truths about the natural world. We will consider the relationship between scientific flourishing and human flourishing.

I hope you will join us again next year in Niagara Falls, New York. I look forward to welcoming you all again then. In the meantime, continue to wave the banner of science, invite others into its fellowship, and, as always, stay curious.

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