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President’s Message

Author: psacks | Image: psacks

From C. Lee Burras President, ISU Sigma Xi Chapter 2013-14

Dear Sigma Xi Colleague,

The early 21st century is an incredible time to be a scientist. Every discipline is advancing at an accelerating pace. Discoveries historically considered basic are routinely finding immediate application, which is creating new, intellectually enriching collaborations for all of us. And this is exactly what Sigma Xi is about. We are an honorary society dedicated to excellent research. We promote inclusivity across the scientific community. So my first message is to encourage all of us at Iowa State University to keep doing exactly what we are doing. We are making a difference to the citizens of Iowa and the world. We are advancing knowledge. But my second message is one of caution. The very success of science at ISU and around the world is creating opportunities and challenges. I want to remind us of three of those challenges.

Challenge 1 is internal. We must always be modest, honest and ethical. This seems obvious but we are in the business of discovery and we are always seeking more support to continue to discover. Hence, when we do find something we really want to tout it. We almost need to. After all, funding agencies reward big impacts. So does the promotion and award system here, at every other university and across all scientific societies. That is right and reasonable; however, if the public or policy makers think we are overstating our case – which can be as simple as failing to adequately communicate limitations in our findings – we risk undermining the credibility of all science. An occasional lapse in judgment – whether intentional or not – risks damaging our entire community, especially in a world of instantaneous communication and feedback.

Our second challenge is showing that public-funded science remains relevant. Our very success is driving this. So, why should the public invest when basic discoveries are resulting in patents? Doesn’t this mean good scientists will find funding through venture capitalists instead of pestering an already overtaxed populace? Never mind most research never will result in patents yet is clearly beneficial to society. The trend is shrinking public dollars and declining recognition of the value of scientific discoveries. This is ironic given the rapidity at which the public expects better cures for diseases, cleaner fuels for our power plants, etc.

This leads into our third challenge – educating the public about how science really works. We need to instill in our students and in the public that discoveries routinely take decades to happen. And they generally are built from knowledge gained through many failed experiments. Getting people to accept this is difficult when the answer to everything seems to be in Wikipedia and its ilk. But it is essential we make sure they do.

In conclusion my message is one of enthusiasm. Science is thriving. Discoveries are occurring at a level never seen before. This makes Sigma Xi more relevant than ever. Our mission is to recognize outstanding scientists while facilitating communication and community among all of us. It is a fun mission. But my message is also a reminder. We must always exhibit the highest level of modesty and integrity. And we must instill in our students and the public the very exciting and necessary and public role that science has in societal advancement.