Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Honor Society
Please start by giving us an introduction to Sigma Xi – tell us a bit about the organisation’s rich history.
For 130 years, Sigma Xi has been the beacon of research, the clarion for scientific integrity, and the standard for quality performance. Our ranks include over 200 Nobel Prize winners. From Albert Einstein to a sophomore from East Plano High school, we encompass the total breadth of scientific research endeavour and the full array of all ages and stages of recognised professional achievement.
Sigma Xi was founded in 1886 at Cornell University by a group of engineering students and a junior faculty member, Frank Van Vleck. From the beginning, the founders emphasised that the new scientific honour society would be broad in its outlook, devoted to all of science and engineering. Sigma Xi was designed to reward excellence in scientific research and to encourage a sense of companionship and cooperation among scientists in all fields. In selecting a name and motto for the new honour society, the founders chose a combination of Greek letters – Sigma Xi – not being used by any other group.
By 1887, Sigma Xi was holding ‘regular meetings for the discussion of scientific subjects’, and the following year, the group elected five women to full membership, which both promoted the interests of women and made their research more available to the scientific community. By that time, chapters had been established at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Rutgers College, as well as at Cornell.
‘We are a band of sisters and brothers in membership and chapters doing and promoting research – research that is the tangible foundation for a sustainable future’
At its quarter-century anniversary in 1911, Sigma Xi had about 2,000 active members in 28 chapters. Two years later, former Sigma Xi president Samuel W. Williston urged the establishment of a ‘Quarterly Bulletin’, which would, he argued, ‘create further interest in the Society and increase its usefulness’. This publication would later become known as American Scientist, which today is a bimonthly, illustrated magazine that communicates the latest developments in science and technology.
As Sigma Xi grew, it came to play a prominent role in scientific affairs. In 1916, the newly-formed National Research Council asked Sigma Xi’s ‘cooperation…in organising…research facilities’ in preparation for the country’s expected entry into World War I, and the Society enthusiastically agreed. By 1927, Sigma Xi had firmly committed itself to a program (which continues today) of awarding small grants to young scientists through the Grants-in-Aid of Research Program to help advance their careers.
Sigma Xi chartered its 100th chapter in 1948, and by 1950, it boasted about 42,000 active members. In 1947, a group of Sigma Xi members formed the Scientific Research Society of America (RESA) to encourage research in government and industrial laboratories, in the same way that Sigma Xi encouraged research in the academic community. In 1974, RESA merged with Sigma Xi, under the name of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society of North America.
Sigma Xi’s Centennial in 1986 provided an opportunity to address issues of importance to science and society in the decades ahead. With support from the National Science Foundation, Sigma Xi sought to develop ‘A New Agenda for Science’, a project that identified seven important areas for ongoing consideration: public understanding of science, science in the policy development process, interdisciplinary research, science education, the international dimension, cooperationnot competition-in science and technology, and ethical issues involving science and technology.
In response, Sigma Xi adopted an expanded mission statement in 1989: to honour scientific accomplishments, to encourage and to enhance the worldwide appreciation and support of original investigation in science and technology, and to foster worldwide a creative and dynamic interaction among science, technology and society.
Today, Sigma Xi has over 100,000 living inductees in over 500 chapters in the US, Canada and other countries, including Georgia, Switzerland, Thailand, Lebanon, New Zealand and Australia. Sigma Xi chapters are found wherever scientific research is undertaken in universities, colleges, industrial research facilities and government laboratories.
Sigma Xi’s mission is very simple. Sigma Xi encourages, actively promotes, and directly supports performance of research at the highest degree of integrity and quality. Sigma Xi, the largest research honour society in the world, that is our inducted membership, is dedicated to enhancing and protecting the science and engineering research enterprise in all its facets. To reflect our true nature, we added ‘Honor’ to the name in 2016.
You have had quite a varied career working as an environmental consultant, and more recently as the vice president of Oak Ridge Associated Universities. What motivated you to join Sigma Xi as the Executive Director?
Through the various stops along the way, one constant has been paying my annual Sigma Xi dues. I was first in my family to even attend college, much less achieve the PhD, thus upon my 1969 induction to Sigma Xi at NC State University, the honour was strong, strong enough to last a career, for the pride and aura of zealous companionship has never left. Real scientists had invited me into their ranks! The meaning to me, even as an unproven researcher, was that I was now considered by others to be a scientist! At that point, I launched a very successful and rewarding career in environmental consulting, and came home to education and research for the longest segment of my career on the faculty at The Georgia Institute of Technology, appointed in three schools and as a Laboratory Director in GTRI. Just as background, before graduate school beckoned, I taught high school biology and chemistry, and coached American football and track. After ‘retiring’ from Georgia Tech in 1998, I became VP in charge of the country’s largest science-based consortium of research universities – Oak Ridge Associated Universities, ‘retiring’ yet again in 2009.
Fast forwarding to October of 2015, I was asked to come out of retirement to assume the position of Executive Director and CEO for 6 to 9 months, and I agreed. The Society, like many such organisations, was experiencing some membership slippage and related issues. While happily working on a set of challenges and seeking a new permanent CEO, I was asked to remain for another year through to June 2017. Now, after a really enjoyable and hopefully productive tenure, I’m seeking to replace myself and retire once more. We have accomplished much and set a good heading into the future, and, naturally, I will involve myself in some way. So, why? I love Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. Everything about it from the initial honour of having thousands of outstanding Companions in Zealous Research, to my current position, the Society feeds my passion for serving the creativity and innovation that is research. Considering that the US is a world-leader in scientific research, why do you think scientific literacy amongst Americans is so low? Please tell us how Sigma Xi is striving to improve this situation. Wow, if I knew this answer I would be an even busier person. A friend contends that the literacy deficit, period, is a shrunken attention span due to ‘gadget communication’. Certainly, a changing way of life factors in, but there is more, and if it is true that busy thumbs have resulted in a decline in teenage drug use, why can’t they be learning something with those digits? I suspect that our people have a lifestyle that detracts from day to day realities until that point in life when responsibility actually sinks in. I know this was the case for me. Having a baby on the way got all of my attention, and, thankfully for me, the truly great thing about our educational system, with all its flaws, fits, and starts, is that it allows comebacks – it offers laggards another chance.
As a scientist and an ordinary consumer of ‘the news’, I am suspicious of shallow analyses, ill-conceived premises, or just plain bogus statistical analyses and arm-chair sensationalism. All this normal confusion is compounded by the embarrassing failure of the pollsters, the undermining of educational content and pedagogy by legislators and other uninformed or special interest groups, and the advent of the astounding fake news phenomenon – in sum make for an altogether dangerous brew. You see, besides all the evidence that engenders my suspicions, I was once an 18-year old jokester that answered ‘yes’ on a personality test about whether someone was following me. Serious and personal calculation – thinking things through – and analysis without group-thinking is probably the best way forward for us all. That takes personal introspection and work. The broad-brush proclamations about the poor quality of our total educational enterprise and its products or our scientific literacy are not necessarily to be trusted out of hand… I’m just saying, sort of like Yogi Berra, a famous baseball player, who once held that, ‘if you look around, you can see a lot’.
So, contrived man-on-the street interviews about science can be fun, but maybe not so informative, certainly not controlled experiments that produce truly evidence-based information. Unsubstantiated feelings, all forms of prejudice, and stereotypical characterisations are damaging, not fun. For now, I judge, as does the rest of the world, that the level of technological skill, innovation, and creativity in the United States competes very nicely anywhere. So, while we still may lag in many ways at some stages of an individual’s scientific development, and it is true that opportunity, inclusivity and fairness are meted out unevenly, I see that individuals are not left out entirely nor are they tested out at early age as in many other cultures. A large proportion of our children and adults have a chance to catch up, to work hard, and to succeed. I see that through it all, we produce really worldclass scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians and that this cadre still represents the global gold standard. The thing is we need more gold, and the world must have an uninterrupted flow of investment and communication past obstacles confronting us in so many places and in so many ways.
How prevalent do you believe scientific misconduct is in the research community today? By what means does Sigma Xi encourage scientific integrity?
First, let me rely on a forbearer:
‘The honour in being elected to Sigma Xi is inextricably coupled with responsibility, to use the knowledge that you have to better the lot of humanity. And this is the hallmark of Sigma Xi in the 21st Century.’ – Thomas F. Malone, Sigma Xi President 1988–1989.
Charlatans exist in every aspect of human endeavour. Ethical behaviour and the highest standards of research are not just a part of our vision and mission statements. These core principles are life blood to Sigma Xi. These tenets are what we swear to when inducted. Through career training and across all we do, scientific integrity is at the forefront. As an example, Sigma Xi recently started, through OpenStax, contributing an ethics and integrity sidebar in each chapter of scientific textbooks. We will be doing more of that in the future, most notably in Advanced Placement texts for high schoolers.
Since its founding in 1886, Sigma Xi has emphasised that integrity is vital to science. But for busy researchers, ethical practices are often taken for granted until something bad happens – perhaps a resignation, a retraction, or an authorship dispute. But, the research enterprise armed with peer-review does identify, correct, and enforce accountability upon those that fall from the responsibility tree.
As an honour society, Sigma Xi aims to foster the highest professionalism among its members. This means cultivating a keen awareness of ethical issues and a proactive approach to research integrity as it applies to each stage of the research process.
When scientists uphold ethical best practices in these and other areas, they contribute to an accurate scientific record, public trust in science, and efficient use of research funds.
Finally, one of the biggest scientific challenges of our generation is anthropogenic climate change – please tell us about some of the many ways that Sigma Xi is striving to mitigate a global climate disaster, and working towards a sustainable future.
Sometimes they are fairly direct. For example, we sponsored a reception for the James Hansen climate change lecture at the Virginia Tech hosted Appalachian Studies Association Conference in March. In truth, there is no way I can list the events directed at this subject through our 500+ chapters all over North America and the world. It will have to suffice to say that issues such as Climate/ Global Change, pro-vaccination, population control, national research investment policy, and environmental quality… name a subject…we are the ‘Scientific Research Honor Society’. Every aspect of research falls within the purview of our very diverse, eclectic membership, and they act through their professional endeavours and their voices as citizens.
We have been and continue to be a leader in laying the research foundation for the fact of global climate change, disaster if you wish. We portray the evidence-based facts as we know them about global change. How? We are 110,000 plus living, inducted members composed overwhelmingly of researchers that not only perform the research to establish founding principles, but we also write, speak, and teach in classrooms and elsewhere about the already undeniable case that human activity contributes to global warming significantly and in a seriously large magnitude. That said, we are also a huge portion of the research workforce that is seeking ways and means to mitigate the already evident damaging effects of global warming and the technologies to halt the production of greenhouse gases through the replacement of fossil fuels with already competitive, emerging clean energy sources and infrastructure. Should you point to any research facility or clean energy business – science, engineering, technology, or math based – you will find members of Sigma Xi at the core and leading. The examples are legion, but I will point again to our inaugural Gold Key Awardee, Norman Augustine, Lockheed-Martin and multi-faceted contributor to STEM education and national defence, and so much more, or to Jim Goodnight, Founder and CEO of SAS, a leader in corporate conduct and employee welfare and advancement of STEM education.
You see, Sigma Xi is not about headquarters or officers, although we try to provide some form and function. We are a band of sisters and brothers in membership and chapters doing and promoting research – research that is the tangible foundation for a sustainable future