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Time's a-Wastin'

This inaugural message as your new president is the first essay I've written since leaving two decades of federal service. During most of that time (at the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, OTA) I was constrained to always present "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" observations on technical issues. On a number of occasions, I was taken aside by a Member or Senator and asked "...personally and confidentially, how would you vote on this matter...?" It was imperative that I not yield to that temptation, but rather focus on sharpening the debate, exposing untruths and misleading statements, and unmasking hidden agendas. In doing so, it frequently became clear purely from the merits where the most effective policy path lay. One day I found an OTA report being quoted in a congressional debate—by both sides of the argument! I asked a powerful committee chair whether OTA's extensive analysis made any difference if it had that effect. His answer was "yes," that the study had elevated the level of the debate, and at the same time narrowed the issues to be resolved by political compromise.

There is a lesson here for Sigma Xi members. Our objectives are to serve humanity in the discovery, advancement and use of knowledge. This includes marshaling our collective ability to bridge the sometimes-awesome gap between science and engineering on the one hand and political leaders on the other hand. It is a rarity that a person who chooses a science and engineering career also has the aptitude for a life in politics. But political leaders, especially in the 21st century, must have access to thoughtful, accurate and useful knowledge about the relevance of science and technology to society. The challenge for Sigma Xi members is not only to educate and conduct research but also to be active in building effective links to others, especially those chosen to govern by election to public office. These people are especially receptive to information from knowledgeable people from their own political jurisdiction who can speak thoughtfully and helpfully on technical issues. With Sigma Xi's campus-based chapters we have a unique national network to share information and analysis on issues. I propose that each Sigma Xi chapter identify a small number of public issues that involve science and technology and that should be particularly relevant to their senator, representative, governor or state legislator. Next, the chapter must get well informed about the issues and how they relate to the legislative process, and brainstorm for good ideas. Then chapter members must approach selected officials and offer their thoughts in a constructive fashion. This is the goal of Sigma Xi's new Science Advocacy Program.

I can think of a few especially timely subjects. For example: (1) the best strategies for support of research and education as a way to continue a strong economy and build the future; (2) the many technical unknowns still surrounding the "national missile defense system," envisaged to protect U.S. territories from attacks from rogue states and from accidental launch; (3) questions about the enforceability of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the future of strategic arms control; and (4) how we should use our newly found ability to do precision genetic engineering, which offers (as someone once said about the discovery of nuclear energy) "...the promises of Heaven and the perils of Hell...."

The scientist's special responsibility as a citizen is a mantle many of us would be reluctant to shoulder, but ethical behavior does not allow us to avoid responsibility. I'd like to hear your reaction. I believe our chapters can make a very real difference.

Many, if not most, readers of this editorial have experienced a sense of frustration, and perhaps anger, when they have encountered the public pronouncements of their "peers" on controversial scientific matters. They know that nonscientists, including political leaders, trial lawyers and jury members, often lack the education, training or background that would allow for a reasoned evaluation of a scientific dispute.

This is clearly a question that has consequences. What nonscientists perceive as quarreling among scientists lessens their respect for scientists and for science. Also, junk science can lead to the removal of products from the marketplace or prevent the introduction of new products that might contribute significantly to one's health or that might improve the quality of one's life.

How scientists and engineers might address the junk-science dilemma is a difficult question for which answers are needed. In 1998 the American Medical Association considered a proposal for a peer-review system that would hold physicians accountable for medical testimony that might be false or misleading or that might promote untenable scientific theories. Other professional organizations might consider similar approaches. Certainly any solution must involve a collaborative effort of the scientific, governmental and business communities.

John H. Gibbons
President, Sigma Xi

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