Sigma Xi looks to refine and update concepts of science excellence. Bravo!

Alvin Weinberg 1915-2008

The new initiative comes at the right time – and from a welcome direction.

But few today may know or remember that half a century ago, Alvin Weinberg, then a Sigma Xi member, offered a personal perspective on the subject. Even today, his essay provides a useful starting point for further thought. Digging deeper…

The new Sigma Xi Initiative.

On March 7 of this year, Jamie Vernon, Executive Director and CEO of Sigma Xi, posted this on his Keyed In Blog:

Sigma Xi, the honor society for scientists and engineers, recognizes research excellence in all scientific disciplines and sectors of the research enterprise. The Society relies on its members worldwide to determine the qualifications for membership based on an individual’s scientific contributions. Generations of scientists and engineers have crossed this threshold of excellence to become members. However, the definition of scientific excellence has evolved in recent years. To bridge the divide between the scientific community and the expectations and needs of broader society, metrics associated with inclusivity, accessibility, and usability of science have emerged as critical factors in determining the value of scientific research. Later this year, researchers worldwide will have an opportunity to weigh in on these discussions at the inaugural International Forum on Research Excellence, powered by Sigma Xi.

Jamie Vernon’s fuller post contains links to additional material and is worth a thoughtful read in its entirety. The inaugural Sigma Xi forum is scheduled for November 3-6, with the in-person portion taking place here in the DC area. The high concentration of scientist-policy leaders here bodes well for such a launch. What’s more, Sigma Xi, by virtue of its mission, membership, and history, has much at stake, and much to bring to the table. And through its commitment to continuing the Forum Series at varying locations, Sigma Xi is positioning itself to play a uniquely valuable role going forward.  

Readers may be forgiven if they feel overwhelmed by the existing and rapidly growing literature on the topic. Such is the nature of the Information Age. That said, here’s yet another candidate for your attention.

Alvin Weinberg’s personal perspective.

Beginning on a personal note: over fifty years ago, I opened up my November-December issue of Sigma Xi’s journal, The American Scientist, to find an article by Alvin Weinberg entitled The Axiology of Science. A nuclear physicist, a leader of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory both during and after the Manhattan Project, a member of the President’s Science Advisory Commission under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and a DoE executive in several capacities in later years, Weinberg had an extraordinary career as a scientist and as a scientist administrator, at the highest levels of government and at a critical juncture in science and science policy in this country.

The JSTOR format in the link doesn’t lend itself to ready copying and pasting even small blocks of material, but to give you the flavor, here’s some (apologies, actually a bit of a laundry list) of what you’ll find there.

  • A definition of the axiology of science (including ethics and aesthetics, a theory of value)
  • A list of those who should care: practicing scientists, science administrators
  • Why axiology matters: for resource-allocation, setting academic curricula, etc.
  • A special problem of comparisons of value/merit across scientific fields
  • A catalog of implicit axiological attitudes toward science: pure is better than applied, general is better than particular, search is better than codification, paradigm-breaking is better than spectroscopy. (Weinberg doesn’t simply enumerate these, as I’ve done here; he dives into each in a bit of detail. And he doesn’t accept them uncritically, but identifies shortcomings)
  • Criteria for scientific choice: ripeness for exploitation, calibre of the practitioners (Weinberg sees these as distinct from those in the earlier category, relating more to resource-allocation aspect of decisions)
  • Fifty years ago, Weinberg was already arguing that the big picture assessments can’t be left to scientists alone, but must include the larger society. Accordingly, he identified three external-to-science criteria for making such decisions: technological merit, that is, the degree to which science advanced the possibilities of needed technologies; social merit, the degree to which science would meet a societal goal; and scientific merit, which he framed as the degree to which science “contributes to and illuminates neighboring fields.”
  • A wrap-up, including raising and discussion of several questions that Weinberg acknowledged were easier to pose than resolve
  • A plea for philosophers to weigh in.

To repeat, what’s provided here is to point you to Weinberg’s unfiltered, and complete thoughts. If you’re not already familiar with this piece, and if you care about the value, and values of science, you might want to read it. Maybe even reread it.

Several times.

Please do so. You’ll be struck by the crisp clarity of his writing. Savor his thought process. Admire his prescience – the extent to which the piece feels as on-point today as it did fifty years ago. But go further; note what seems dated (for example, lack of explicit attention to the inclusivity and accessibility of science). Visualize directions and opportunities for improvement. Going forward, commit to tracking the progress Sigma Xi will make. Or better yet, participate.

Shortly after I read (and reread) this paper in the early 1970’s, my government lab asked me to move from my bench-scientist post into a management role. My post-Weinberg brain helped me see that offer as an opportunity, instead of a mere distraction. Changed my life.

Sigma Xi’s new initiative promises to accomplish something similar in the minds of many early-career scientists and at that same time expand public engagement on the issues.

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