SACNAS and “Social Entrepreneurship”

As a scientist, I like to know both the theory and the application of my subject. In these policy columns, I plan to bring you up to date on current SACNAS policy initiatives and to introduce some of the theory behind the policy by including concepts from more general publications.

SACNAS 2009 Annual National Conference in Dallas

Coming just after the SACNAS National Conference held in Dallas, this column continues themes from the summer/fall SACNAS News policy column. With over 2,800 participants, the 2009 SACNAS conference marked the largest event in our organization’s history. Even more important than the record-breaking number of participants was the richness of ideas generated by our community coming together. Collaborative meetings at the conference between SACNAS’ leadership and officers from several federal agencies and other government units laid the groundwork for advances in science policy. More precisely, the continuing partnership between SACNAS and science agencies will impact science policy through an increased awareness of diversity issues at the federal level. Furthermore, science policy both in Texas and at the national level was advanced through the active participation of many sponsors, especially the three major university sponsors: the University of North Texas, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Texas A&M University. Immediate examples include visits by national leaders like Mr. Juan Sepulveda, the director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans to the 2009 SACNAS conference, and significant press and media support.

SACNAS and Social Movements

Many of you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book The Tipping Point, which is about social movements. He famously writes about “social epidemics,” describing how seemingly small events can build on each other until they have significant impact on society, whether for good or ill. Gladwell writes, “The moment when they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the Tipping Point.” In the book Gladwell identifies three types of individuals who play a part in this process: “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen.” These concepts, also applicable to organizations, can be used to describe some of SACNAS’ policy initiatives.

SACNAS as a “connector” society. In policy work, relationships are especially important. “Connectors” bring people and groups together in useful ways. They facilitate establishing and developing relationships without which policy work does not get done. SACNAS’ connector role includes bringing its people together with those of other organizations and groups, such as the Office of the President of the United States, the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP). The fruit of these connections is bountiful. For example, in July of 2009, SACNAS and AAAS joined forces to hold the first SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. SACNAS and MAES will hold their annual conferences in adjacent spaces in Anaheim, California, from September 30 to October 3, 2010. Also, SACNAS, ACS, and CSSP are collaborating on several projects at multiple levels, including how to strategically approach federal legislators and others for funding and initiatives to advance our communities in the sciences.

SACNAS as a “maven” society. A “maven” is “one who accumulates knowledge.” Thus, a maven organization is one that is consulted on important issues within its purview. Said differently, SACNAS is striving to become a “go to” organization on topics related to our goals. To clarify our purposes, we have created a strategic plan (available on our website) that includes evaluation/assessment as a key component of our activities.* SACNAS seeks to become a premier organization that can supply useful information and interpretations about the challenges and successes of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in STEM. Another example, directly involving specific SACNAS members in this case, is the above-mentioned SACNAS Leadership Institute, which has the goal of helping competitively selected participants (postdocs, junior and mid-career scientists) to deepen their scientific possibilities and/or widen their administrative possibilities, such as becoming department chairs, deans, and presidents. An initial group of 30 participated last summer during a week in Washington, D.C., and there will be more groups of 30 during the next few years, supported by a National Institutes of Health award given to SACNAS. The graduates of our leadership institute will make SACNAS a more knowledgeable resource for national policy leaders.

SACNAS as a “salesman” society. Gladwell’s use of the word ”salesman” can be applied to SACNAS’ new, systemic emphasis on policy and advocacy itself and, in particular, to establishing a “Washington presence.” We seek to improve both the methodology and the achievement of significantly greater diversity in the science enterprise. As an immediate means toward these ends, the SACNAS board will hold its winter meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 2010 to optimize interactions with key agency officials and to explore other federal possibilities. The board will also learn more about how policy is developed in Washington. We are pleased to announce that our first SACNAS fellow for science policy has just been appointed. John Christensen, who has considerable experience with CSSP, will be based in Washington, D.C.

SACNAS has played an important role for almost four decades as it has attempted to create greater representation of minority scientists, particularly Native Americans and Hispanics/Chicanos. Many challenges lie before us, but as we increasingly add self-conscious policy development to our portfolio, we will accomplish these tasks more quickly. We have much to do, but together we shall accomplish this very important work.

As the Belgian Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck said, “At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.”[1]

About the Author

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.

References Cited

[1] This quote is given in the book Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, 2008. This fascinating book uses his earlier work on “disruptive innovations,” first published in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, 1997. I will return to this topic in future articles.


Related Resources

Follow the latest developments in national science policy: SACNAS on Twitter! (@sacnas_policy)
View other SACNAS science policy articles
View the entire winter/spring 2010 edition of SACNAS News