Vision, Confidence, and Science Policy

167 Confidence is a requirement for success in envisioning and implementing science policy. SACNAS is an agent for social change that seeks to radically transform and diversify the face of science and, thereby, science itself.

My major duties and the duties of the SACNAS leadership are to consistently and confidently represent SACNAS on a national level. Going to the White House, meeting with policy makers, and with the leaders of the nation’s federal laboratories definitely takes some self-assurance. I try to over-prepare for every meeting, with a maximal amount of information in hand. But the confidence actually comes easily because I represent an organization whose goals are essential both for equity and the future of the American high-tech workforce. The work we do at SACNAS is inspiring and prevents self-consciousness.

A Confident Vision

The following proverb is emblazoned on the wall of the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee meeting room: “Without vision, the people perish.” The SACNAS Board of Directors recently commissioned a small group of SACNAS members to provide a potential future vision, which is captured in the new document SACNAS Vision 2020 (pdf). In this plan, SACNAS is envisioned as a primary resource, the “go-to” organization of its kind for members, federal agencies, industry, essentially everyone working to broaden—make that vastly broaden—participation in science.

In many ways, we already are a go-to organization, exemplified recently by SACNAS past president, Dr. Marigold Linton, winning the President’s Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). Dr. Linton recently became the 14th (!) SACNAS member, in addition to SACNAS itself, to win this award. This remarkable set of achievements underlines the leadership capabilities of our membership, and the vast resource our scientists are for nurturing the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.

Actualizing a Vision for the Nation

For America to move confidently into a productive, innovative, and internationally competitive scientific future, we must tap the talent of communities that are currently underrepresented in the sciences. The America COMPETES Act of 2007, which was passed to “invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States," and the National Academy of Sciences publication Rising Above the Gathering Storm, acknowledge this imperative.

As part of the effort to expand the reach of science and its outcomes, the National Science Foundation implemented a “broader impacts” criterion in the merit review process for funding proposals. For anyone who has written an NSF proposal, you can probably recite the criteria in your sleep. However, for those who haven’t yet applied for NSF funding, the criteria include:

  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
  • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

The America COMPETES Act was reauthorized in 2010 and has thereby catalyzed a reevaluation of the National Science Foundation’s broader impacts criteria. The NSF solicited opinions from the larger scientific community about the criteria, and SACNAS seized the opportunity to make our voice heard. We acknowledged that the broadening participation criterion, as part of the National Science Foundation’s merit review, is a crucial means for including diverse populations in American science.

However, to avoid a dilution of the original intent of broadening participation as originally formulated by the National Science Board and the national workforce imperative, we at SACNAS strongly suggested that it should be made into an overriding criterion. The fact that broadening participation is only one of the many broader impacts topics greatly weakens its possible effect on the American STEM workforce.

Furthermore, we stated that to make a significant impact on increasing participation of underrepresented communities in science, evidence of significant commitment to diversity by principal investigators (PI) and support from the PI’s institution toward that goal should be a critical part of the assessment toward getting an NSF award.

A Vision in Action

Broadening participation in the sciences involves the hands-on services that SACNAS programs provide in addition to the advocacy work of the science policy team. One major way to initiate change is to diversify leadership. Therefore, we continue to recommend SACNAS Leadership Institute graduates and other SACNAS members for positions in DC and elsewhere. The most frequently occurring positions are memberships on boards/review panels of federal agencies and other STEM organizations.

Highlights From the Last Six Months Include:

  • SACNAS president Ernie Marquez representing the organization at a key DC science celebration for National Science Board awardees, held at the Department of State. He spoke with science leaders across a wide spectrum, including leaders from the NSF, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP), and national teachers’ organizations.
  • I was privileged to represent SACNAS at a recent White House Constituency Organizations Briefing in DC. We learned from the relevant White House staff about current topics, some of which are STEM-related, as well as whom to see on various issues. Being invited to participate is important and confirmation of our go-to status.
  • SACNAS responded to the National Institutes of Health’s positive step of establishing a working group to examine the future of the biomedical and behavioral workforce by requesting appropriate representation from our constituent communities.
  • Science policy fellow John Christensen represented SACNAS at the recent AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum, perhaps the premier meeting of this type. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director John Holdren and other science policy leaders spoke.
  • SACNAS recently co-sponsored an event led by the STEM Education Coalition and was represented by Dr. David Wilson, SACNAS director of Native American Initiatives, and John Christensen. The overall organization includes K-12 science teachers.

What is a common theme in all of the above accomplishments? The answer is confidence—confidence in purpose, mission, and implementation. We are eager for you to lend your voice to our national efforts, for you to pursue your careers and dreams with the assurance that SACNAS is working on your behalf on a national level.


Dr. Robert Barnhill is SACNAS’ vice president for science policy and strategic initiatives. His career in mathematics and computer science included creating the subject of computer-aided geometric design, as well as supervising and mentoring many students and faculty at all levels of higher education. He was vice president for research for a total of 15 years at Arizona State University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Texas system. On the board of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP), Dr. Barnhill was elected CSSP’s vice president. Among other things, this will facilitate modern diversity efforts with the presidents of the 100+ societies in the CSSP.

Image Details

Executive Director, Judit Camacho and Dr. Barnhill met with National Science Foundation engineering assistant director, Dr. Tom Peterson to discuss broadening NSF’s support for engineering students at SACNAS.


Related Resources

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View other SACNAS science policy articles
View full edition of the Summer/Fall 2011 SACNAS News