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Membership and Professional Responsibility

Over the past decade, many professional organizations have suffered a decline in membership. Although many of us have speculated about the meaning of this change among scientists and engineers, as well as others, relatively little seems to have been done to reverse what I believe is a negative trend in attitudes toward professional responsibilities.

A primary characteristic of professionals is that they use knowledge to guide their decisions and actions, sensitive to the impact of these actions on an individual or on society as a whole. The physician making a decision about the treatment of a patient or the engineer making a decision about safety issues in a highway design project must use the best available information. Scientists, engineers, health-care professionals and others have a responsibility to continue to grow and to use the most current and most appropriate information in making their decisions. The discipline-based scientific, engineering and professional societies and associations perform an outstanding service in assisting their members in staying current and determining best practices. Multidisciplinary societies and associations play a very different and perhaps critical role of bringing together professionals from across the spectrum of science and engineering. These two types of professional organizations are very different but complementary.

Frequently I hear colleagues asking what membership in a certain professional organization provides as a tangible asset for me. Does membership help me in resume building, does membership provide me with printed materials, or does it assist me in getting grants, tenure, promotion, etc.? All organizations should be prepared to answer questions about the benefits of membership, and they have a clear responsibility to provide members with the tangible items promised with membership. However, it seems to me that as professionals we should ask other questions: How can we enhance our discipline? How can we enhance the spectrum of disciplines represented by science and engineering?--and, most importantly, how can we benefit society? In my opinion, membership in discipline-based and multidisciplinary organizations is a responsibility that professionals accept because it is one method of fulfilling our commitment to society. Organizations that represent specific disciplines are well suited to serve the role of advancing that discipline and to provide an interface between the discipline and society.

However, as scientists and engineers we should not only accept the obligation of being members of professional organizations, we should be willing to assume the many leadership roles required to make organizations like Sigma Xi serve society. Every Sigma Xi member, active or inactive, was nominated by a member and therefore honored for having achieved a significant goal in scholarship. Having been honored by election to membership, each member then has a continuing obligation to seek out others deserving of the same honor. By electing to membership those who have earned the honor, we assure continuance of Sigma Xi and enhance our organization's ability to serve society.

Our challenge is not only to enjoy the benefits of membership in professional organizations but also to seek out ways of discharging our professional responsibilities to our discipline and to society.

W. Franklin Gilmore
President, Sigma Xi

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