All posts by Jon F. Wilkins

Nurturing the Ecosystem

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Alex Lancaster, Anne Thessen, and Arika Virapongse have written an excellent article presenting a new perspective on the structure of academia. They argue in favor of abandoning the idea of the career “pipeline” in favor of an “ecosystem” metaphor that allows for a diversity of models of what a “career” looks like and what it means to contribute to the scientific endeavor.

You should read the whole whole thing.  It has now been published in F1000 Research ready for open peer-review, but here is the core of the model:

We propose an ecosystem as a conceptual model that is relevant both to the training of a scientist and their role as a professional (see figure below). The two most inner circles in the Figure depict the basic necessities, training, and professionalism of science. Here, traditional scientific labs may still have a role, but the networks of peer-to-peer collaborators that span both within and outside of institutions are emphasized. The two outermost circles are the impetus behind the changing context of science today. It is becoming more evident that a new systems-based approach is needed to allow science to adapt more quickly to the complex socio-political and biophysical context of today (the outermost circle). There are, however, now new resources, tools, and infrastructure (courtesy of STEM advances), such as lab space, journal access, and high-performance computing, either publicly available, or available for rent, that allow science to thrive outside of traditional institutions (the orange, next outermost circle). In addition, bottom-up changes are already being driven by early career scientists themselves in many different ways.













The article goes in depth into the limitations of the pipeline model and the inadequacies of the solutions that are typically proposed from within that paradigm. It treats the ecosystem model in even greater depth, identifying and proposing new solutions that could be implemented and some that already are, and ends with a call to rewrite the cultural narrative around the practice of science.

Changing the cultures of research careers and the scientific enterprise is an experiment itself: actively practicing new a scientific culture can encourage others to be even bolder in their experimentation. The existing institutions that are tasked with supporting basic curiosity-driven inquiry need to be reformed and strengthened, but that alone is insufficient. We must build new structures that are informed by an ecosystem view from conception. The beauty is that science can be made available to everyone and our technologies are making it increasingly so. It is not a scarce resource: we should build our new ecosystem to recognize this truth.

Read more at F1000 Research…

Independent Scholarship Survey

Research Scholars Arika Virapongse and Alex Lancaster have put together a survey designed to help us better understand how independent scholars “make it work.” We’ve already begun collecting responses from current Research Scholars, and the preliminary results look really interesting. We’re looking forward to sharing them once the results are in. We also want to open up the survey to anyone who has been doing independent scholarship and anyone pursuing a non-traditional academic career path. If that sounds like you, we would love to get your input on this. Or if you know someone who fits this description, please feel free to bring this to their attention. The survey can be accessed here.

The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. We know that your time is valuable, but we ask that you try to contribute as much detail as possible in your responses. Unfortunately, there is not a way to save your responses and complete the survey at a later date. For the option to work at your own pace, you can preview the questions here.

We are hoping that the information we collect will help us to develop new and better ways to support diverse models of scholarship and academic careers. And we would love for you to be a part of that.

Ranalli on Thoreau Tonight (October 11) in Acton, Mass

This evening (Wednesday, October 11, 2017), Research Scholar Brent Ranalli will be giving a talk at the Acton Memorial Library in Acton, Massachusetts on Henry David Thoreau’s “Indian Stride.” The talk starts at 7pm and is free. More information found here:

THOREAU’S “INDIAN STRIDE”   Local historian Brent Ranalli discusses Henry David Thoreau’s fascination with all things Native American and the odd fact that at least three contemporaries said the Concord philosopher walked like an Indian. Ranalli presents the results of research into the actual biomechanics of traditional Native American and Euro-American walking styles and their cultural significance, as well as a reconstruction of Thoreau’s own gait based on literary sources. Acton Memorial Library; free.

Monosson Speaking at Arnold Arboretum in Boston 10/4

If you’re in the Boston area, Research Scholar Emily Monosson will be speaking tomorrow (Wednesday, October 4) at 7:00 pm in the Hunnewell Building at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum’ in Boston. Details below:

Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health

Emily Monosson, PhD, Environmental Toxicologist, Writer, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

1 Session: Wednesday, October 4, 7:00–8:15pm

Location: Hunnewell Building

For more than a century, we have relied on chemical cures to keep our bodies free from disease and our farms free from bugs and weeds. We rarely consider human and agricultural health together, but both are based on the same ecology, and both are being threatened by organisms that have evolved to resist our antibiotics and pesticides. Fortunately, scientists are finding new solutions that work with, rather than against, nature. Emily Monosson will speak about some of science’s most innovative strategies and the growing understanding of how to employ ecology for our own protection. Natural Defense, Monosson’s newest book, will be available for purchase and signing.

Fee Free member and student, $5 nonmember

Register at or call 617-384-5277.

Call for Papers: “Transnational mobilities in nationalist times: living beyond the nation in the 21st century”

Research Scholar Jaime Moreno Tejada is looking for submissions for a special issue of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies. From the call:

This issue will explore the transnational movement of people, things, capital and ideas, at a time of rising nationalism. The prefix trans means both “across” and “beyond”. Thus “transnational” is here understood as a broad category, including international mobilities across national borderlines, and local rhythms dependent on global networks that supersede the limits of the nation-state. E.g. drug dealing in Manila.

Potential contributors should send a 300-word proposal, along with an academic CV, to Jaime at The deadline for proposal submissions is 1 December, 2017.

The full call is attached here: Call for papers_Special Issue_Mobilities

Lancaster at CESTEMER

Good news Chicago!

This weekend, from September 15-17, is ImprovScience’s CESTEMER conference, at the Goodman Theater ( From their description:

What happens at CESTEMER? This innovative conference brings together faculty, graduate students, K-12 educators and professionals in STEM and art fields who are exploring, practicing, and researching performance in science. CESTEMER advances, among these diverse attendees, the practices of community-building, collaborative creativity, diversity and inclusion and their relationship to ensembles.

And, this CESTEMER will feature a talk by Alex Lancaster, who will be giving an overview of the Ronin Institute. His abstract:

The Ronin Institute, formed in 2012, is a self-organized community of scholars from both the sciences and humanities formed with the core assumption that researchers should create their own measures of success and that affiliation with a conventional brick-and-mortar research institution should not be the sole metric of “success”. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization the Ronin Institute provides an affiliation for scholars, as well as a financial structure whereby researchers can apply for federal and state grants. In this talk I will share our own steps in cultivating virtual science communities, such as the creation of face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference held in November 2016, as well as virtual meetings: a weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. I look forward to learning more from other CESTEMER participants about how we can continue and extend our journey towards creating living, joyful communities of scholarship.


Use Unpaywall to Find Papers

While a lot of the academic literature is still paywalled, meaning that it can be hard (and expensive) for independent and non-traditional scholars to access, much of that literature is actually publicly available. Many authors post their articles on or researchgate, or even on their own websites. Often, this self-archiving is even permitted under the terms of publication.

If you’re just a little bit ambitious with your web searches, you can typically find these, but it does require an extra step or two, which can fell like a bit of a drag.

Enter unpaywall, a new browser extension currently available for chrome and firefox that will tell you if there is a free version of the article you’re looking for somewhere out there, even if it is formatted differently (like an arXiv preprint). Check it out!

Ronin Featured in Nature Article on Independent Scholarship

Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!

College Affordability Study Finds Dismal Results

There’s a new study out by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that looks at the affordability of 2000 colleges for a number of hypothetical students representing different family and economic situations. There’s a nice summary of the study at the Atlantic. Here’s the take-home message:

Of the more than 2,000 colleges analyzed, IHEP found that almost half were affordable only for students from families making more than $160,000. That means that in addition to being able to afford 90 percent of colleges, half of those colleges are also essentially exclusively reserved for them. For-profit colleges were the least affordable schools, and public colleges were the most affordable. But even then, four-year public colleges that didn’t meet the students’ affordability thresholds were off by an average of $9,000.

For low to moderate income students, with incomes < $69,000 per year, only one to five percent of the colleges studied were affordable. Note that, according to the Census Bureau, median household income in the US in 2015 was less than $56,000.

Op-ed piece on the Alignment of Science and Other Truth-Tellers

Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.

You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.


It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.