Since the first PTW in 2001, the conference has been a gathering place to explore and celebrate performance as a catalyst for human and community development and culture change. PTW is now a global community of hundreds who creatively engage social problems, educate, heal, organize and activate individuals, organizations and communities, and bring new social-cultural-psychological and political possibilities into existence.
The Ronin Institute’s Research Scholars are drawn from many different career stages, levels of experience and backgrounds. As we don’t advocate a single model of a career in scholarship (in contrast to the traditional academic pipeline), it isn’t surprising that Research Scholars explore many different means to support their scholarship (this is supported by preliminary analysis of our independent scholarship survey). One means of support, more common in the sciences, is freelancing: being hired for short or long-term projects by academic institutions, private companies or non-profit organizations. Projects may hire researchers either in full-time or part-time capacity, generally as an independent contractor or consultant. Ideally these projects utilise the scholars’ unique research background and the experience and skills gained during consulting activities will help the scholar’s ongoing research, ultimately resulting in both science-informed solutions for the client and more grounded research for the scholar.
The rise of freelance science has noted by both the trade science press and science news outlets over the last couple of years. A piece on NPR’s Science Friday earlier this year mentions Ronin Institute by name:
For example, the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship offers meet-ups and online discussions for people working in the field…And the website Kolabtree, which pairs freelance scientists with employers, boasted over 3,000 members as of October of last year.
The global gig economy has influenced industries from taxi driving to software engineering. With the rise of websites and apps such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Upwork, more workers than ever are selling short-term services to many clients rather than holding down single full-time jobs. People with scientific training are adopting these practices as well, either by offering services on sites such as Upwork or finding projects through their previous academic networks.
As Labor Day here in the United States draws to a close, it’s worth reflecting on how Silicon Valley-style gig economy “platforms” actually work in practice in science, and asking whether they are providing a sustainable future for freelance science, or whether we need a better model. Although most of the coverage thus far, has been detailed and nuanced, there is a tendency to invoke “Uber” as a point of reference, being the most well-known gig economy platform.
The Science Friday article was titled “Uber, But for Scientists”, and although the phrase was probably not intended to be taken too literally, as scholars we should be extremely wary of the Uber comparison, even casually. And we should be even more wary of organizing freelancing around anything like Uber’s business model. The business models that underlie many “gig economy” companies are simply not designed for freelancers to build sustainable businesses of their own. They should not be emulated. Here’s two reasons why:
Not true self-employment
Companies like Uber or TaskRabbit style themselves as a means for flexible self-employment, a means to create independent businesses. However, in practice, many users of these services have the worst of both worlds: all the control of the employer with all of the risk of being self-employed. Uber effectively exerts the power of an employer (through the ability to “deactivate” drivers for a variety of reasons) but none of the benefits of actually being an employee (healthcare, retirement savings etc) all of that risk is transferred to the driver. As reported in an early August editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the California Supreme Court did not buy tech companies attempts to reclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid providing healthcare, overtime and other benefits:
The unanimous high court ruling…held that workers should enjoy minimum wage and overtime protections unless their employers can prove that they are running independent businesses. Under the court’s sensible standard, an independent contractor must be generally outside a company’s “control and direction,” do work that is not central to the company’s business and regularly perform similar services for others.
That hews to the traditional understanding of what constitutes a contractor. As such, a wide range of companies in tech and beyond, having disingenuously classified de facto employees as contractors, will fail to meet the standard, and rightly so.
If this business model was deployed in research it might be something like being a postdoc constantly being loaded up with projects you couldn’t refuse, but with worse-than-grad student benefits and wages.
Mismatch between research and gig economy platforms
Most research takes time, requires patience, and a high degree of tolerance for error and backtracking. Although in some research fields, projects can be “divided up” into smaller more predictable pieces, especially in highly regulated areas like biomedical and biopharma research, this is not the norm. Classic venture-capital (VC) sharing economy companies are likely to thrive in areas where they can rapidly “scale”: meaning taking a fairly simple and somewhat anonymous task (e.g. driving), using technology like an app or website to coordinate and monitor the work, and then taking a cut of each transaction. Research tasks that can scale in that way, are likely to be the most menial and uninteresting parts of any research project – which doesn’t mean to say that they should not be rewarded – but that they likely only represent a small portion of any meaningful research project.
VC-backed companies are really only interested in building platforms that can scale and grow to an eventual monopoly status. Because the users (whether a driver, or a scientist or scholar) don’t actually own the platform, these platforms are unlikely to ever be good substrates for thriving, creative independent self-employment. As author Tom Slee puts it, in What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy (OR Books, 2015):
What started as an appeal to community, person-to-person connections and sustainability and sharing has become a playground to billionaires, Wall Street and venture capitalists… there is a lot of talk about democratization and networks, but what’s happened instead is a separation of risk (spread amongst the service providers and customers), from reward, which accrues to the platform owners.
A more successful and humane freelance and consulting model for scholars will, I hope, be of a more traditional sort: growing a sustainable business by developing a client base over time, building relationships with people in academic and private organizations on many different kinds of projects of various size and scope. In other words: these are very kinds of projects and relationships that are likely to resist the “digital Taylorism” and anonymization of the platforms being developed by the mainstream gig economy Reflecting the overall shift towards precarious employment in the economy in general*, the challenges of freelancing are still experienced by those in more traditional positions, as noted in the Science Friday piece:
But not even the traditional path of a scientist is immune to some of the issues freelancers encounter. “To be fair…you could interview an academic researcher who has funding this year and not next year and it would be the same sort of scenario.”
However, even if digital platforms never become the bread-and-butter for independent scholars, the basic idea of platforms to coordinate research labour, seems to me, not intrinsically bad, if the business model is not exploitative and the platform participants both own and actively participate in platform’s governance. These are the principles behind the “platform co-operativism” movement, which attempts to ensure that social and financial value stays within the users and platform, and are not whisked away to Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Several successful business have run using platform cooperative principles, including a stock photography company and taxi cooperatives in Denver and elsewhere (for more examples see Ours To Hack and to Own by Trebor Scholz & Nathan Schneider, OR Books 2017).
I’d love to see platform co-operatives specifically for research and scholarship becoming part of this new movement.
But please, let’s stop saying, “it’s like Uber, but for…”
* The issues that face freelancers now are likely to be the same issues that non-freelancers will face in the future, and as I’ve pointed outelsewhere, an extensive rethink of the benefits system, including the provision of universal healthcare and basic income, will likely be needed in the long-term to restore the kind of security that long-term employment once provided.
Here’s a visual gallery of the scholars that make up the Ronin Institute as of March 2018 (or at least all the scholars who have provided photos for their profile page – contact us if you don’t see your photo or would prefer to remove/a different one).
It’s great to have you all part of this community.
As scholars, we are constantly negotiating our relationships to our field(s) of study and to our job titles. In the sciences, a PhD can remain a “physicist” whether in a professorial job in a university, national lab, or industry
But what of the humanities? If an anthropologist with a PhD is not employed as an academic in a university, are they any less an anthropologist? For many traditional academics it is almost inconceivable to remain a scholar without being either in a tenure-track position, or on the road to one. The number of people willing to take poorly paid adjunct positions to stay on the treadmill is testament to the persistence of this idea, and even in the sciences the culture is slow to change as we’ve noted previously. Twitter and the blogosphere is overflowing with discussions of “alt-ac”.
…we must strive to eliminate from our vocabulary ideas and language that label certain livelihoods of humanities PhDs as aberrant. This includes the language of “alt-ac,” “other careers,” “leaving the field,” and, of course, the use of “job” only to mean a tenurable faculty post. This language, revealing an element of narrowness of thinking in our PhD culture, diminishes the strength of the humanities. It must be replaced by empowering, community-building language.
The use of empowering language and modes of thinking is a vital counter to the “contraction and austerity we are seeing now within the university”, argues Paulas:
The humanities have taught us that the way we talk about things matters. We must be alert to the language we use that reinforces a limited view of the work lives of PhDs…
How to do this? To start: refer to any career that a PhD holds as a PhD career. Period. That solves a lot of problems. People with PhDs in Anthropology or Classics who work at banks must say without second thought: “We are anthropologists” or ”We are classicists.” No more “I used to be an anthropologist, but now I work outside the field.”
For us at the Ronin Institute, this is music to our ears. We firmly believe that scholarly identity transcends one’s employment status and Paulas’ piece is one of the clearest and spirited articulations of this idea. It is essential reading for all scholars in both the humanities and the sciences, check it out on the Public Seminar site.
We’re posting our videos from the Ronin Institute seminar series there. It also includes playlists of videos that feature Ronin Institute Research Scholars and their work, such as symposium panels, performances, TV or web interviews, as well as presentations at Ronin events such as Unconferences.
You can subscribe to our channel using the button below (if we reach more than 100 subscribers, we can get a slightly more snazzy URL handle like youtube.com/channel/RoninInstitute):
(If you’re a Ronin Research Scholar yourself, please send us links to existing YouTube videos that feature your work, or feel free to upload them and point us to the video).
In addition to the regular talks, poster sessions, and keynotes, all conference attendees had opportunities to participate as performers through games and techniques drawn from theater and improv. This meant the conference was not the usual armchair experience – all conference attendees were co-creators of the performance that was the conference itself. Why is this important? Performance is critical to group learning because of it’s “show, not tell” and experiential nature. To take just one example, the workshop run by Nancy Watt and Carolyn Sealfon “Whose Idea Is It Anyway?” tackled the ownership of ideas in science. Workshop participants grouped together to solve a physics problem and were asked to “play” different characters drawn from several personality types. By experimenting with different characters, we were able to experience how each group solved problems based upon their willingness to build on other’s ideas, embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, share credit and move the collaboration forward.
The intense competition to demonstrate individual “ownership” of an idea often prevails in the academic world (coupled with an artificial scarcity that is perpetuated by the journal prestige system amongst other things) can sometimes lead to an atmosphere of distrust. Therefore the direct experience of the value of empathetic collaboration to produce both better results, as well as unexpected and serendipitous discoveries, through such workshops, will become increasingly invaluable as a means for cultural change in our institutions. This bottom-up approach, coupled with more top-down changes in publications and funding incentives, will, I believe, lead to more durable cultural change than either alone. Plus it’s also a much more fun way of doing science!
I presented a short talk outlining how the Ronin Institute is aiming to foster new ways of thinking of the scientific enterprise as an “ecosystem” of peers. In this ecosystem, scientists collectively empower themselves to build scientific careers in whatever mode or style works for them in the context of the rest of their lives (whether this is in a university setting or elsewhere). I contrasted this ecosystem idea with the usual “pipeline” metaphor that conceives that pursuit of autonomous research requires following one of a set of fairly narrow career paths, controlled by a relatively small number of gatekeepers. I shared the concrete steps we have made in cultivating our own science communities, such as the face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference, the virtual meetings: the weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. You can see the slides here:
In summary, CESTEMER was a really fantastic opportunity to generate new “spores” in our evolving ecosystem of science and scholarship. I thank CESTEMER for inviting us, and I’m excited for the Ronin Institute to become part of this conversation. I look forward to all these spores travelling back to each of the participants’ everyday workplaces and spreading the message that we all do our best work when we listen and play together. I plan to attend the next CESTEMER conference in 2019 and I invite anyone interested to join me!
Academics in traditional university environments tend to be keenly aware of where their university ranks, whether they like to admit this or not. Most familiar are the college-level rankings like those from the US News & World Report, which weigh the undergraduate experience heavily. However in the research world, the notion of “excellence” has become the coin of the realm as evidenced by a proliferation of “excellence frameworks” such as the Research Excellence Framework (UK), the German Universities Excellence Initiative, the Excellence in Research for Australia and the Performance Based Research Fund (New Zealand). Given that many resources from capital funds, grants and permanent positions are doled out in accordance with rankings, where one’s institution stands goes beyond mere bragging rights. Most academics understand the arbitrary nature of such rankings and despite regular kvetching that they are either “unfair” (usually from those at an institution “lower” in the rankings) or that they have “finally” recognized the true worth of their institution (usually from those rising in the rankings), the existence of the ranking system itself, is normally taken as given. After all, how are we to sort the worthy from the unworthy?
Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson have published an (ahem), excellent research paper “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence that comprehensively examines both the notion and practices of “excellence” in research. Excellence, as most of the research frameworks define it, essentially boils down to some combination of ranking institutions by their scholars ability to publish in established prestige journals, ability to gain external grants and other easily-measured metric of scholarly output.
Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “excellence” is totally bogus:
…a focus on “excellence” impedes rather than promotes scientific and scholarly activity: it at the same time discourages both the intellectual risk-taking required to make the most significant advances in paradigm-shifting research and the careful “Normal Science” (Kuhn  2012) that allows us to consolidate our knowledge in the wake of such advances. It encourages researchers to engage in counterproductive conscious and unconscious gamesmanship. And it impoverishes science and scholarship by encouraging concentration rather than distribution of effort.
In other words in the context of scientific scholarship: focusing on excellence prevents the two things that we say we want from from science: careful reproducible science and the big breakthroughs. The article covers familiar ground to those who have been following the state of academia including discussions of the lack of reproducibility in science, the pernicious use of journal prestige to evaluate academics, and the general environment of hypercompetition in research. Many, if not most, academics are aware these issues, having been covered extensively in the trade press in recent years, but continue to view them through the lens of their effect on traditional tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty with established research programs. So it is refreshing that the article tackles how the rhetoric of ”excellence” can restrict the range of types and styles of scholarship, issues that are close to the heart of the Ronin Institute:
There is, however, another effect of the drive for “excellence”: a restriction in the range of scholars, of the research and scholarship performed by such scholars, and the impact such research and scholarship has on the larger population. Although “excellence” is commonly presented as the most fair or efficient way to distribute scarce resources (Sewitz, 2014), it in fact can have an impoverishing effect on the very practices that it seeks to encourage. A funding programme that looks to improve a nation’s research capacity by differentially rewarding “excellence” can have the paradoxical effect of reducing this capacity by underfunding the very forms of “normal” work that make science function (Kuhn  2012) or distract attention from national priorities and well-conducted research towards a focus on performance measures of North America and Europe (Vessuri et al., 2014)
The article continues by pointing out that “excellence” is often used as a proxy for academic work that fit certain “standard” modes, which can result in a more bland and conformist world of scholarship:
Given the strong evidence that there is systemic bias within the institutions of research against women, under-represented ethnic groups, non-traditional centres of scholarship, and other disadvantaged groups (for a forthright admission of this bias with regard to non-traditional centres of scholarship, see Goodrich, 1945), it follows that an emphasis on the performance of “excellence”—or, in other words, being able to convince colleagues that one is even more deserving of reward than others in the same field—will create even stronger pressure to conform to unexamined biases and norms within the disciplinary culture: challenging expectations as to what it means to be a scientist is a very difficult way of demonstrating that you are the “best” at science; it is much easier if your appearance, work patterns, and research goals conform to those of which your adjudicators have previous experience. In a culture of “excellence” the quality of work from those who do not work in the expected “normative” fashion run a serious risk of being under-estimated and unrecognised.
As the authors point out it is common in such pieces to identify external factors such as:
institutional administrators captured by neo-liberal ideologies, funders over-focussed on delivering measurable returns rather than positive change, governments obsessed with economic growth at the cost of social or community value
the roots of the problem in fact lie in the internal narratives of the academy and the nature of “excellence” and “quality” as supposedly shared concepts that researchers have developed into shields of their autonomy. The solution to such problems lies not in arguing for more resources for distribution via existing channels as this will simply lead to further concentration and hypercompetition. Instead, we have argued, these internal narratives of the academy must be reformulated.
In other words: academia probably needs to take a look in the mirror once in a while and should question whether current norms really still serve their twin stated goals of encouraging sound “normal” scholarship as well as risky breakthroughs. I would also add: it should be enabling all scholars to participate in whatever way fits their individual talents, rather than promote a “one-size-fits-all” notion of alpha-academic success. There is much more to the article than space allows here, it’s a good piece for anybody interested in the future of scholarship, and it includes a highly detailed bibliography.
Coda: In a nice example of walking the walk, the authors have this note about “subverting traditional scarce markers of prestige” by adopting:
a redistributive approach to the order of their names in the byline. As an international collaboration of uniformly nice people (cf. Moran et al., 2016; Hoover et al., 1987; see Tartamelia, 2014 for an explanation), lacking access to a croquet field (cf. Hassell and May, 1974), writing as individuals rather than an academic version of the Borg (see Guedj, 2009), and not identifying any excellent pun (cf. Alpher et al., 1948; Lord et al., 1986) or “disarmingly quaint nom de guerre” (cf. Mrs Kinpaisby, 2008, 298 [thanks to Oli Duke-Williams for this reference]) to be made from the ordering of our names, we elected to assign index numbers to our surnames and randomize these using an online tool.
Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who is interested in exploring how physics contributes to environmental effects on development and recently joined the Ronin Institute as a Research Scholar. Here is a edited version of an interview I did with him from last year (full version).
Can you describe your background?
My background is in biomechanics and developmental biology. My Ph.D. asked how feedback between form and function shapes marine invertebrate colonies. During my postdoc I worked on the physics of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos, specifically focusing on trying to understand how the embryo tolerates inherent and environmentally driven mechanical variability. Since then I have been independently investigating interactions among ecology, biomechanics, and development of marine invertebrate embryos, as well as teaching courses.
IGoR is a wiki for sharing research ideas, skills, and resources among novice, amateur, and professional scientists. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to do scientific research, regardless of how they make a living. One of the main motivations was that I often need devices that are just beyond my own skills to make, but which hobbyists with other skills could easily help me make. This got me thinking that I could do more and better science if there was an easy way for me to build collaborations with amateurs who have different skill sets. I also realized I would have much more fun doing science if I had a way to keep doing it whether or not I get the next grant or research job. Amateurs, such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, or Grote Reber (the inventor of the radio telescope), used to be major contributors to scientific research. Today’s technologies should make it much easier for people to do science outside of a career, but we need ways to pool people’s talent and experience.
Where do you see “citizen science” going in the next 5 or 10 years?
I should say that IGoR is inspired by “citizen science,” but is a bit different from most citizen science. At the moment, most (but not all) citizen science seems to follow a model in which a few experts design a way to obtain a lot of data by getting many volunteers to do some low-skilled, repetitive task. However, there is a lot of interest in community-generated approaches (such as Public Lab, iNaturalist, OpenROV, and others), and approaches where there is real feedback between professionals and citizen scientists, involving creative and intellectual input from citizen scientists.
How does citizen science relate to the “open-science” movement?
As far as I can tell, the open-science movement seems to be focused mostly on open data and open publication models, but there are a lot of other strands to it. One strand that IGoR is definitely a part of is trying to move away from a status quo in which research is almost all done by people employed as researchers by big institutions. Open science, open source generally, citizen science, and the Maker/Hacker movement, all seem to be pushing against the divide between the professional and everyone else….
Are there particular kinds of research areas or projects that tend to fall through the cracks of traditional funding agencies (NSF, NIH etc.)?
Yes. Funding agencies and universities like high-tech science. If you use a big machine that goes ping to do it, you have a much higher chance of success than if you just need to watch something with your own eyeballs, even if the intellectual merit is the same or better. Funding agencies are also driven by fashion, so in biology anything “omics” is in, and organisms seem to be pretty much out for the moment. Finally, they are not good at funding brand new projects, or new or unknown researchers. For example, researchers often say you need to do the project before you can get funding for it, and then use the funding for the next step. This makes perfect sense: your best bet with limited money is the big lab, with lots of toys, piles of preliminary data, and oodles of publications to prove they can do the job. However, that makes it hard for new researchers, small labs, or people trying new directions. Cutting those researchers out reduces the diversity of research questions and perspectives.
My hypothesis for why “omics” and traditional model organisms dominate (even when there are better ones for particular problems) is positive feedback. If approach or field X is fashionable it will garner higher profile publications and more funding, so people doing X will have more opportunities, and other people will pay more attention to X, hence X seems even more exciting and an even better bet for funding or new hires. But, attention and funding are limited, so the more those go to X, the less they go to everything else. As I write this, it suggests that the answer is to make funding, and also publication visibility, a non-zero sum game. That gets back to finding new ways to support science, and to tell people about it, which encourage diversification of questions and approaches.
What kinds of changes in the institutional structures of science (e.g., peer review, publications, promotions etc.) would encourage more citizen science, open science or independent scholarship?
I think one of the biggest things that academic institutions could do is to teach students that independent scholarship is possible. There will never be enough funding for everyone who wants to do research (and is skilled at it) to make a living doing it. However, we all know that some of the deepest conceptual advances, notably Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution, came from people who were not employed as scientists. There are still many of important questions that can be addressed by an individual investigator on a shoestring budget.
So, if we value science (or scholarship generally), we need to create an environment in which research can be an avocation rather than a career. The most important parts of that are to make that choice socially acceptable within the scientific community, and to teach people – starting in undergrad and going through all career stages – how to make it work. There are many resources describing how to succeed in academia (or whatever other career one might choose); but, there are few, if any, guides to doing research successfully when one is not doing it for one’s job.
Are there other new models of doing research, outside of mainstream academic research institutions, that you have seen out there that inspire you?
Community labs are one that excites me a lot, and is an inspiration for IGoR. They could be great for getting novices, amateurs, and independent professionals working together to do substantive research; their main limitation is that they are few and far between. The Ronin Institute aims to create a more flexible approach to being an independent scholar, so that more professional-level scholars can do research. Even simple things like providing an institutional affiliation for applying for grants could be very helpful.
What’s your favourite organism?
Do I have to choose just one? Ctenophores might be it right now. The way they glide through the water with waves of iridescence running down bands of beating cilia, is incredibly beautiful. I love the fact that they coordinate a lot of their motion and sensation using interactions among cilia: a very different approach than most animals. They also have some very cool developmental features. For example, some of them can regenerate half or more of their body as adults, despite the fact that (for the most part) each embryonic cell forms a particular part of the body, and cannot be replaced when lost. There is a point in their development where they gain the ability to regenerate. However, I love lots of invertebrates, and I can’t look at ciliates without wondering why I don’t study them.