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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2000 > Article Detail

FROM THE PRESIDENT

A New Century Needs New Faces in Science

Two major and related developments for Sigma Xi during the last decade of the 20th century have been the Society's focus on its international character and its expression of a strong commitment to diversity through the vigorous recruitment of women and members of other underrepresented groups to careers in science and engineering. According to the National Science Foundation, there was a small but steady growth in the representation of women and racial minorities in science during the 20-year period from 1975 to 1995. But more recent reports suggest that this progress is not continuing into the new century. The NSF reported in March 1999 that the number of students from racial minority groups chosen to receive its prestigious graduate research fellowships had dropped by more than 50 percent from the previous year—a warning sign that cannot be ignored (Science April 16, 1999, p. 411). For the first time in 20 years the NSF had eliminated its separate competition for underrepresented minorities as a result of judicial rulings and legislative pressures against the use of race as a selection criterion in education.

Sigma Xi's commitment to bringing more women and members of other underrepresented groups into science was formulated at a two-day workshop held during the 1993 Forum and Annual Meeting in San Francisco. However, during that workshop a point of view was stated and a major concern was expressed that, in retrospect, appear related to the judicial and legislative rulings that caused the change in the way that the NSF conducted its fellowship competition. One panelist asserted that no societal barriers exist today to an individual's or group's success in science, other than low motivation and/or lack of intellectual ability. In response, others were quick to point out some of the very real barriers to individual success in science: socioeconomic status, early educational experiences and attitudes toward and a lack of understanding of the role of science in contemporary society.

The concern expressed during the 1993 workshop was that women and members of other underrepresented groups, if trained in science and engineering, will take jobs away from those who traditionally have made up the majority of the science and engineering community. In 1993 there was an economic recession in California, and some present complained that they or members of their families had lost their jobs when preference was given to women and others considered to be underrepresented. Job security is a very real concern even in a society that is undergoing the remarkable economic expansion taking place in the United States today, and this economic expansion is not typical of many other nations.

The problem of generating broader representation in science and engineering crosses national boundaries and thus is appropriately the concern of an international society such as Sigma Xi. Recent population projections for the United States suggest that by mid-century those who today are classified as underrepresented minorities will comprise more than half of the population. The United States is only one member of a family of nations whose boundaries are increasingly obscured in an era of nearly instantaneous, worldwide communication. Thus, it is essential at the start of the 21st century that we devise strategies to bring new faces into the community of scientists and engineers.

Peggie J. Hollingsworth
President, Sigma Xi


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