The annual meeting of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society,
was held in Washington, D.C. on 23 - 26 October. I had the pleasure
of serving as a delegate at that meeting, representing the Wilkes
College Sigma Xi club. The purpose of this communication is to
provide you a summary of the proceedings of that meeting (a difficult
task because I took over 30 pages of notes!).
The meeting marked the 100th anniversary of Sigma Xi, and culminated a year-long series of events. The theme for the meeting was "A New Agenda for Science". Formal sessions were held in the main auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences building. Evening receptions were held at the National Museum of Natural History (of the Smithsonian Institution) and the National Air and Space Museum. Approximately 375 delegates attended, representing all 50 states and several Canadian provinces. Among the delegates were some from academia, others from industry and still others from government. Moreover, the delegates included biologists, psychologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, physicians, social scientists and computer scientists.
Prior to attending the meeting, each delegate received the special Centennial issue of American Scientist (Sigma Xi's journal) highlighting the history and activities of the organization. Delegates also received a copy of the booklet entitled "A New Agenda for Science" which summarizes an extensive survey on how the Sigma Xi membership perceives science.
During Friday's opening session, the delegates were welcomed by Dr. Frank Press (President of the National Academy of Sciences) and viewed a brief film; "Sigma Xi - A Growing Tradition" which summarized the history of the organization and described the ways in which it assists scientists in their research endeavors. After a series of presentations by other societies, Mr. Albert Gore, U.S. Senator from Tennessee, presented the Keynote Address. In that talk, he emphasized the linkage between science and society. He noted that, at one time, the public viewed science and technology as a "savior". That view has become more skeptical, however, due to some undesirable side effects of science, such as nuclear weapons and pollution. We are living in a time when science is part of everyone's daily life, yet few people even comprehend that science is as much a process as a body of facts. Scientists must devote more effort to hearing the public's concern and to educating the public. Sen. Gore closed by citing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as an example of a misguided and wasteful effort that is allowed to continue, only because the public is not sufficiently educated about the nature (and limitations) of science.
Friday afternoon's session was entitled "Looking Back, Looking Forward". It featured presentations by Dr. H. Brooks (Harvard) and Dr. L. Branscomb (Immediate Past-President of Sigma Xi), as well as a round-table discussion and an open session in which comments from delegates were invited.
Dr. Brooks provided an historical perspective, focusing on the way that science has been funded. He noted that, prior to the 1940's, university research was supported by private and corporate donors; the federal government funded mostly agricultural research. That pattern changed due to World War II and to a 1945 report by Vannevar Bush which stated that America's prosperity would be ensured if the federal government more actively funded research (especially basic research carried out in universities). Still, basic research accounts for only 10% of the total outlay; the remaining 90% supports research on defense, agriculture and health. Levels of funding varied since 1945. From 1966-76, support was low compared with the previous decade. Since 1976 funding was again increased, especially in applied and high-tech research, to help the country become more competitive.
Dr. Branscomb focused on the benefits and future of research. He listed ten benefits of research. Included among those ten were: it creates opportunity for new technology, it is important for making correct policy choices, it advances education in science, and it produces shifts in the way that we perceive reality. As for the future, Dr. Branscomb foresees greater emphasis on interdisciplinary research and increasing use of electronic media (i.e. computer networks) for transmitting scientific information.
In the round-table and open sessions, a number of important points were made. First, several participants maintained that the level of scientific literacy among the general public is distressingly low. Most people do not know the difference between true science and pseudo-science. This lack of basic scientific knowledge can be traced to deficiencies in the way that science is taught in elementary, junior high school, senior high school, and college. In particular, laboratory exercises are often dull and do not get the key concepts across to the student. In addition, the mass media must do a better job of educating adults on scientific issues.
Second, one speaker mentioned that the way in which researchers are prepared needs to be examined. He stated that undergrads are not taught to probe and think creatively. Then, once they reach graduate school, they are expected to blossom overnight into brilliant researchers. A few speakers, myself included, argued that small colleges provide an excellent environment for undergrads to acquire skills and thought-patterns for research.
Third, some participants were concerned about science becoming "too big". The current structure by which scientists at smaller, less prestigious institutions are able to make significant advances in science must be maintained.
The Saturday morning session was entitled "Who Plays, Who Pays, Who Sets the Rules?" It featured three speakers, Dr. J. Brademas (President, New York U.), Sir F. Crawford (University of Aston (England)), and Mr. E. Bloch (Director, National Science Foundation). Again, the speakers were followed by a round-table discussion and an open session for the delegates.
Dr. Brademas spoke on the fact that Americans dominated science for the past four decades. Yet, in this country, science policy is now undergoing critical review. The scrutiny is due to several factors: science is moving very quickly and people do not understand it, funding is limited due to the federal budget deficit, and the U.S. is declining in competitiveness and scientific advances are needed. Recently, both direct and indirect support for science has been cut by the Reagan administration. There is more friction between scientists and the government than ever before. To overcome the present difficulties, we must do the following: (1) continue to openly debate science policies, (2) strive to build alliances between colleges, government and industry, and (3) communicate better with the public.
Dr. Crawford's talk focused on the future of science and engineering education. He said that the task of education will not change much: undergrads will continue to learn how to think clearly and write effectively, whereas graduate students will widen and deepen their areas of interest and will learn how to discover new knowledge. The materials of education will change, however. There will be increased use of computers, but the challenge will be to maintain a personal touch. The clientele will also change, such that colleges should focus more on those who are older than traditional college age. Lifelong-learning is important. Colleges should also be careful that they do not price themselves out of the market.
Dr. Bloch noted that, with regard to funding and prestige, science follows the golden rule: "He who has the gold, rules". His talk focused on the agenda for publicly supported science and engineering education and research. The U.S. finds itself in a very competitive world situation. We presently import more hi-tech goods than we export. We must devote increasing energy to research to keep our market-share. Currently, basic research is losing to applied and defense research. Since 1975, fewer American students are pursuing Ph.D.'s in social and life sciences. There is an increase in the number of foreign nationals pursuing such degrees however. Many pre-college students perceive science as an unattractive career choice, compared with law and business.
In the round-table and open sessions, several points were made (and others restated). First, science is international in scope; we should be careful of instilling nationalistic chauvinism into research. Second, scientists must become more willing to address public policy. They need to "become liberated and not barefoot and pregnant in the lab". Third, the human factor of highly competitive research is being ignored. There is increasing incidence of "scientist-burnout." Since the pay is often low, more prospective scientists are turning away from science as a career choice. Fourth, scientists in academia (especially at larger schools) are often tenured and promoted on the basis of their research output, rather than their teaching excellence. Thus, many faculty members interested in advancement will focus on their research and will devote a minimal effort to their students. The result is that students are often subjected to dull, unimaginative courses with little personal feedfack from the faculty member. The notion that science involves discovery, and that discovery is often extremely satisfying ("science can be fun") is frequently not conveyed to students. The reward structure for outstanding science teachers needs to be improved, both by institutions and by professional societies. Faculty would also benefit from more interaction and input when they design lectures and laboratory exercises. Finally, to best facilitate science instruction, college faculty and teachers of pre-college students should establish a much better working relationship.
The final formal session, held on Saturday afternoon, was entitled "Realizing the Benefits". It featured Dr. M. Good (Allied-Signal Corporation), Dr. R. Adams (Smithsonian Institution), Dr. D. Hamburg (Carnegie Corporation), a round-table discussion, and an open session. It ended with a closing synthesis by Dr. F.K. Hare (Sigma Xi President).
Dr. Good's fascinating talk focused on the role of science and technology in international competitiveness. She started by noting that, along with Japan, other Far-East countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong) are becoming world leaders in high-tech industries. In particular those countries lead in consumer electronics, use of industrial robots, ceramics, titanium technology, and carbon-reinforced plastics. Factors hurting the U.S.'s competitiveness include: high costs and low productivity of labor, the strong dollar, regulatory constraints, a lack of highly trained technicians, a lack of a cohesive national science and technology policy, obsolete vocational schools, and a policy of growth by many industries that depends upon acquisitions rather than research and development. She criticized the transformation of the American economy from one based on production to one based on service; the latter will always yield a negative trade balance. The Japanese have established a national policy of becoming the world leaders in biotechnology, high-strength and high-modulus polymers, and ceramics technology by the 1990's. They will accomplish that goal by building a consensus of government, business, and higher education, and by investing in basic research for a 10-year period (much of which is being done in American universities!). To remain competitive, scientists and policy-makers in the U.S. will need to adopt similar strategies.
Dr. Adams spoke on the social matrix of science. He noted that scientists must develop political and social literacy if they want to be effective. In most natrual sciences there is a gap between the way scientists view their disciplines, compared with that of most non-scientists. In social sciences, the gap is not as pronounced (i.e. most people are "social scientists" to a degree).
Dr. Hamburg took a global perspective in his talk. He noted that domestic problems are really domestic aspects of international problems. When the U.S. sets out to improve the technological capabilities of other countries, those countries should apply that technology to their own problems, not to ours. Scientists should be sensitive to the cultural mores of others. Technologies to be transfered should be of a non-military nature; indeed, scientists should teach others about non-violent ways of reducing conflict. A good way to educate people in other countries is through their mass-media. Finally, scientists typically operate as a world-wide community. They should serve as an example to other segments of society.
Several new points emerged during the round-table and open sessions. First, funding of science may be too centralized; more agencies should take part. Second, scientists and engineers may increasingly become the targets of malpractice suits. Third, teachers should better prepare and encourage their students to continue their education after graduation. Fourth, local and state governments must take a more active, supportive role in science. Fifth, the expertise of older (retired) scientists should be put to better use. Finally, science is truly an international effort. We should direct more of our effort to improving the level of scientific sophistication in third-world countries, especially Latin America.
In his closing synthesis, Dr. Hare noted that the health of American science should be the source of some concern. Although science has provided many benefits in the past, there is some debate as to the degree it will continue to do so in the future. The competitiveness of American science and technology seems to be declining. Much of that erosion seems due to the protective policies and lack of interdisciplinarity in American research universities. Much also results from deficiencies in the way that science is taught throughout all levels of the educational system. Science is very poorly understood by the general public. Scientists must do a far better job of communicating with the public, via the mass media. We must strive to further integrate scientific approaches and principles into contemporary life.
Dr. Hare concluded that Sigma Xi, due to its size and interdisciplinary nature, can provide an effective clearinghouse for addressing (and hopefully solving) the difficulties that face science. Much can be done locally by individual clubs.
I personally found the meeting to be extremely stimulating. It addressed many different aspects of what is both right and wrong with current science. I came away from the meeting with a sense that science is at a turning point, and that scientists should be involved in determining the direction that science takes in the future.
The format of the conference was very well done, and that contributed to its success. The invited speakers were well chosen. They represented a diversity of viewpoints in science and each was highly respected in their field. The round-table and open discussions provided an extremely effective format for delegates to voice their opinions. The best aspect was that there was only one session at a time; there was no need to choose among concurrent sessions. As a result, I felt that I really did not miss anything important, due to my being at a different session.
I am also pleased to mention that the national organization accepted all four who were nominated for Sigma Xi membership by the Wilkes College Club. Full memberships were awarded to Dr. David Long, Dr. Kurt Bottjer, and Prof. Ann Marie Kolanoski, while Prof. Jean Steelman was awarded associate membership.
In closing, I greatly enjoyed and learned much from the annual Sigma Xi meeting. I hope that I was able to convey to you some of that enthusiasm and many of the points that were discussed. I look forward to working together in the future so that we can address, on a local basis, many of the issues mentioned at the meeting.
I would greatly appreciate hearing your comments and ideas.
Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology
President-elect Wilkes College
Sigma Xi Club
26 November 1986