May 9, 2003

Scientific honor society scrambles for membership

By Clifton B. Parker

UC Davis’ oldest scientific honor society is in jeopardy of folding.

Since 1925 — the year when Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution and Al Capone took over the Chicago bootlegging racket — Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, has enjoyed a continuous presence on the Davis campus.

But even Scopes would be hard-pressed to find any monkey business in Sigma Xi’s plight. It’s a case of numbers — not enough of them. Charles Nash, professor emeritus of chemistry, says the Sigma Xi chapter at UC Davis may close its doors soon if it doesn’t get new members. “We’re having problems getting faculty to nominate new members,” says Nash, who serves as secretary of the Davis chapter.

New members must be nominated by at least two dues-paying full members of the society. The problem is that many rising young scientists join Sigma Xi but fail to keep paying their dues through the years. As a result, they cannot bring in new members, who are usually students earning degrees in the sciences. Full members, who generally hold a doctorate, pay annual dues of $54. Associate memberships are tailored for students and cost $20 annually.

UC Davis has about 400 researchers who at one time joined Sigma Xi, Nash says, but only a handful of people now pay dues and are on the active roster. “That number has dropped off considerably in recent years, and we just don’t know who the others are.”

Five or six years ago, Nash says, Sigma Xi would initiate 25 full and associate members annually. This year it had to cancel its spring initiation meeting due to a lack of new members.

Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi is a non-profit membership society of nearly 75,000 scientists and engineers who were elected to the society because of their research achievements or potential. Sigma Xi has more than 500 chapters at universities and colleges, government labs and industry research centers.

With a strong presence in Washington, D.C., Sigma Xi is considered one of the more important voices in “the politics of science,” as Nash describes it. In addition to publishing the magazine American Scientist, Sigma Xi awards grants annually to promising young researchers.

“Belonging to Sigma Xi can help that person receive money for research,” Nash says. “A lot of the social scientists appreciate this fact more than those in the hard sciences, where funding may be easier to obtain.”

Nash said the Davis chapter has not had one new full member from the biological sciences in the past four years. “This, despite the fact we’re one of the leading research institutions in the biological sciences.”

Historically, faculty members would canvass colleagues to encourage interest in societies like Sigma Xi. But Nash says academics have so many distractions these days that such traditions have fallen by the wayside.

Another factor behind the dwindling interest, Nash says, may be the increasing specialization of academic disciplines. Sigma Xi is a more general scientific research society.

For instance, Phi Sigma, the national honor society for biology, is doing well, said Barbara Horwitz, vice provost for academic personnel and a professor of physiology who is the vice president of the Davis chapter. “It has the advantage of being focused on a discipline. Nonetheless, although it is a mark of achievement to be nominated into the society, not all nominated students accept. Some of them may not appreciate the value that membership into honor societies confers. Others may think that belonging to an honor society is elitist.”

Students now demand more instant gratification from joining organizations such as honor societies, says Thomas Rost. It took the professor in plant biology three years to establish a Davis chapter of Gamma Sigma Delta, the national agricultural honor society. “It takes a lot of time contacting people and convincing them that getting involved won’t cost them too much time and effort,” Rost says.

Times have changed, he says, and getting people involved in things that may not necessarily have a payoff is “a little out of fashion now.”

“Even students when offered free membership to the society ask what’s in it for them. We’ve had several turn downs because the student didn’t see any relevance to them,” Rost says.

To encourage membership in Sigma Xi, Nash says chapter officers will act as technical nominators for individuals whose nominations have been prepared by a current or former full society member. See qualification.shtml, or contact or (530) 753-1531.

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