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The Joy of Research

As I have visited with Sigma Xi chapters in several parts of the country, I have been reminded of the enormous pleasure I experienced when first given the opportunity to go into the laboratory. This was the opportunity to discover something new. The joy of research in science and engineering derives from the excitement of discovery. Of course, the same excitement is experienced in the humanities when something new is discovered about literature or history.

As children we start with a natural curiosity about everything around us, and during the maturation process this curiosity can be stimulated, buffered or severely attenuated by our environment and experience. The future success of research in science and engineering depends on our society recognizing the crucial role played by stimulation of mental processes early in life. Pattern recognition, analytical thinking and similar abilities need to be stimulated from birth onward. To destroy this natural curiosity or to attenuate the joy of discovery is the greatest disservice we do to the developing person.

For those who reach maturity with their natural curiosity intact and enhanced by education, the joy of discovery is a strong driver of success. The joy of research, however, can be fleeting or at best fickle. Understanding the factors that influence the peaks and valleys or the all-too-frequent plateaus in the excitement of discovery is essential to maintaining a healthy research enterprise. Current data suggest that we have far too few individuals being educated for the research enterprise to remain healthy—a problem that will be among the concerns discussed at the 2002 Sigma Xi Forum. Why are so few of our capable students pursuing the level of education required for a successful research career? Is it because we have dampened their curiosity? Have we failed to let them experience the joy of discovery? Is it because the media sometimes portrays scientists and engineers as nerds? Is it because too many of us currently involved in the research enterprise have become disenchanted with our circumstances and therefore paint a bleak future for potential scientists and engineers? Perhaps entirely different factors are at play in the decision to not become scientists and engineers.

My opinion is that we have too frequently portrayed science and engineering as professions that are all-encompassing. We have portrayed research as a profession that requires long and grueling hours in the laboratory to achieve success. We have failed to promote the excitement and exhilaration of discovery. We have not promoted the fact that it is not only very common but also very reasonable to have a successful research career and an exciting and normal personal life.

My opinion is that we must change our reward systems (pay, promotions, etc.) so that success in research and the financial rewards for success in research are similar to those enjoyed by other professions. We must promote the idea that it is possible to be successful in research without being totally consumed by research. Funding for research should not require excessive time commitments and should encourage discovery. Funding for research and publication of research results should not be emphasized to the exclusion of the joy of discovery. We must bring back, nurture and promote the joy that most of us experienced with our first discovery.

W. Franklin Gilmore
President, Sigma Xi



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