Category Archives: About the Ronin Institute

Empowering the Ronin Community

by Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, and Jon Wilkins

It’s been a while between posts on the Ronin Institute Blog, and in between this post and the last one, the Covid-19 crisis has touched the lives of every one of us across the Ronin Institute and beyond. As a largely remotely-based community, we hope to help fill in those physical distancing gaps by providing a social and intellectual space for all Research Scholars to stay in touch and continue working toward building a resilient community that can connect and support all the other communities in which we are embedded, as we collectively grapple with this crisis.

Well before this crisis had started, we had launched a process to create a new governance structure for the Ronin Institute to accommodate the increased scale and scope of the Institute. We have now come so far in that process that it’s hard to believe that we only started it 6 months ago, in September 2019. Our main achievements to date include:

  • A new governance structure for the Ronin Institute that was developed through a community-informed, iterative process
  • Arika Virapongse as our new (and first!) Community Director for Ronin 
  • Five active Working Groups: Governance, Communication, Infrastructure, Membership, and Research

In the rest of this post, we’d like to outline the philosophy guiding that process, what the new governance structure looks like, and specific new outcomes and initiatives that have been created.

Values and principles that guide our process

Ronin’s two core values have guided our development of the governance structure: 

Truth & Empathy

The ultimate goal of the Ronin Institute is to help scholars “Seek truth.” As Jon Wilkins says, “If you are doing scholarship, your job boils down to this: say things that you believe to be true.” Through the governance structure, we want to help support scholars in reaching this goal. 

Empathy underlies how we do things. The governance structure relies on people to make things work, so we want to constantly ask ourselves: Are we treating people fairly? For example, our volunteer structure emphasizes that volunteers should not be spending more than about 2 hours a week on Institutional activities, and they should only be doing things that they like and want to do. 

Two other principles also inform our decision-making: 

Minimal Viable Bureaucracy & Everybody Drives a Truck

  • Minimal Viable Bureaucracy” is aimed at keeping things as simple as possible for our current size and scale. What this bureaucracy looks like is different for 10 scholars, compared with 200. This also implies that we aim for resilience in our Institute by planning for periods of “richness” and “poverty”–in other words, enabling expansion when we have the resources for it, but also being willing (and able) to scale back when we need to. This concept, for example, informs our approach to adding new technological infrastructure to the Institute, as well as hiring help. 
  • Everybody drives a truck” (first introduced in Kitsune #3) is the idea that a community only thrives if everyone participates and is actively helping to advance our shared goals as an Institute. This concept informed our development of the Working Groups, which are led and implemented through volunteers. 

Because we want to create a governance structure that is right for Ronin–while being careful NOT to create structures that emulate what has always been done (in traditional academic institutions)–we look towards our Research Scholars for help. We’ve been holding Governance WG meetings every month since September 2019, asking people to share their input, ideas, and people-power to create and implement this new governance structure for Ronin. 

The Ronin Institute: Grants Program & Community Program

After 6 months of community-informed governance development, enough momentum has been gathered to distinguish between two main programs within the Ronin Institute: 

  1. Grants and financial administration (led by Jon Wilkins)
  2. Community (led by Arika Virapongse). 

Grants and financial administration consists of all the fiduciary responsibilities related to accepting grants, disbursing funds to researchers, making financial decisions, and meeting the IRS legal requirements of a US-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 

The Community program consists of all the activities related to supporting Ronin Research Scholars’ participation in the community, as well as their scholarship activities within and outside of the Institute. This consists of things like bringing on new members to the Institute, Ronin seminars, the Kitsune newsletter, helping Scholars identify grant opportunities, Slack interaction, and developing new infrastructure to support Scholar interaction—-activities that are now all led by Ronin Working Groups (previously all of these activities were led by Jon). To push the Community program to the next level, a commitment to the coordination and implementation of this program is needed that goes beyond the several volunteer hours per week threshold. As a result, Arika recently accepted the new role of Community Director, a part time position that may ebb and grow as the Ronin community does. 

Working groups (WGs)

Today, we now have five working groups that each focus on a key element of the Ronin Institute Community:

Governance WG: 

  • Scope: Organizes the overall governance structure for Ronin, coordinates across all Working Groups, and creates decision-making structure for the Ronin Community.
  • Example activity: Structuring, activating, and enabling Working Groups 
  • WG leads: Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, Jon Wilkins

Communication WG: 

  • Scope: Develops the approach and structure for how Ronin publicizes and disseminates information about the institute, both internally and externally
  • Example activity: Ronin Newsletter Kitsune
  • WG leads: Arika Virapongse (interim)

Infrastructure WG: 

  • Scope: Coordinating, maintaining, and administering the technical aspects of Ronin. 
  • Example activity: Auditing existing platforms used by Ronin today, and helping to develop a system that allows these platforms to be used by multiple individuals (as opposed to one person using and managing them all, aka Jon)
  • WG lead: Alex Lancaster and Victoria Costa

Membership WG: 

  • Scope: Developing membership criteria and helping scholars participate as members.
  • Example activity: Coordinating the Ronin Seminar series. 
  • WG lead: Victoria Costa

Research WG: 

  • Scope: Helping scholars conduct research through Ronin
  • Example activity: Developing an IRB for Ronin
  • WG lead: Michelle Susberry Hill

If you are a Ronin Research Scholar and want to learn more about these WGs, join the Ronin Slack and check out the channels for the WGs, or contact arika.virapongse@ronininstitute.org for more info. The Ronin calendar also lists the meetings for WGs, and you are welcome to join them. 

What’s next? 

Expect to hear a lot more soon about how the Ronin Institute is growing. We’ll have an All Hands meeting scheduled in late April 2020 to get everyone caught up on what’s going on. Ronin seminars will be activated again within the next couple of months.

We are also just beginning to launch our Interest Groups (IG), which are groups of Ronin Scholars that self-organize around specific topics. For example, to help spark overlooked or unconventional research angles and collaborations in biology and public health for the Covid-19 crisis, the Covid19-biology IG was just recently formed (Ronin Slack channel #ig-covid19-biology). In the future, we hope to have more IGs that bring together our scholars in biological and physical sciences with those from social sciences and humanities to address the truly transdisciplinary nature of crises and contexts that are often missed in traditional academic silos.

You may have also come by this blog post via reading the first community-led Kitsune newsletter put together by Research Scholars Emily Monosson and Yasmina Jraissati.

Many thanks to all the Ronin Research Scholars who have made all of this happen! 

Scientiam Consecemus!

What do our scholars know? Find out at Blogs of the Ronin

Almost since the beginning of the Ronin Institute we had – what used to be called back in the aughts – a “blogroll” – of all Research Scholar blogs.   As part of last year’s site refresh – the “Blogs of the Ronin” are now properly displayed sidebars.   We also have a new dedicated page – Scholar Blogs –  displaying the most recent post from each blog (those that have an RSS feed).    Go and check them out!


If you’re a Ronin Scholar and have a blog that you would like to have listed, please contact us with the link to the blog, and RSS feed, so we can add you to the aggregation. (Conversely, if you are currently listed and would like to be removed, also let us know).  Ideally the blog would contain a good number of posts related to your scholarly interests, but this is by no means a requirement: a blog that mixes personal and research interests is also fine.  If you have several blogs, probably choose the one with the most scholarly-related content.  It’s may also be possible to filter and only aggregate posts within a certain category, let us know if you would like to do that.

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…

New seminar video on the philosophy, goals and values of the Ronin Institute

As we noted in a previous post, the Ronin Institute has started a YouTube channel  featuring videos from our seminar series. Recently Ronin Founder, Jon Wilkins, presented an in-depth overview of our principles and values in honor of the sixth anniversary of the founding of the Institute. It’s up now on YouTube:

You can also find more on our Mission and Why Ronin? pages.

Ronin Institute launches YouTube channel

The Ronin Institute has launched its own YouTube channel!

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).

Performance and collaboration: creating new scientific ecosystems at CESTEMER

The Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) was held at the Goodman Theater in downtown Chicago on September 15-17, 2017. Initiated by Raquell Holmes and improvscience in 2012, it brings together a diverse mixture of scientists, artists, humanists and performers to discuss and discover new ways of doing science in groups. I attended to share what we’ve been working on at the Ronin Institute, as well as gathering new ideas and strategies for the way forward. There are now many great venues and conferences for discussions on improving science communication, the value of creativity in our workplaces, or integrating the arts and humanities into STEM and education – CESTEMER was about all of those things, but with an added unique emphasis on group performance and play.

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 SealfonWhose 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!

Lancaster at CESTEMER

Good news Chicago!

This weekend, from September 15-17, is ImprovScience’s CESTEMER conference, at the Goodman Theater (http://www.cestemer.org/). 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.

Enjoy!

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!

Open Letter on the Election, our Values, and our Community

I was putting together a letter to send out to the community of Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute. When it was done, though, it seemed like it might be relevant to other academic communities, as well. So, I thought I would share it here:

Greetings Ronin!

On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States. We won’t understand all of the consequences of that for some time. However, it seems unlikely to mean anything good for scholarship. There is good reason to worry that there will be negative impacts on funding, and it is possible that certain types of research could come under more directed attack. For some of you, there may be more personal and immediate dangers – things lower down on the Maslow hierarchy than publication expenses.

The Ronin Institute is a 501(c)3, meaning that we are specifically prohibited from lobbying for or against any candidate or piece of legislation, so we can’t, as an institution, take explicitly political positions. At the same time, we do have a certain set of values, values that are clearly at odds with much of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Given the way in which the violation of those values – and of many, many societal norms – has been mainstreamed and normalized in the media over the past several months, I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to our two cardinal values here.

The first value is truth. This is the core value of all scholarship. It means being careful and thorough in your research, and it means being clear and honest in your communication. It also means being open to the possibility of being wrong, and it means working every day to be less wrong. As we move further into what seems to be a post-truth period in politics, it is more important than ever for us to commit ourselves to uncovering truths and sharing them with the world.

The second value is empathy. That means treating each other with kindness and generosity, recognizing that other people may have goals and face challenges that are different from your own. And that entails a genuine commitment to diversity. No matter how much bigotry and harassment may become (further) normalized and (further) institutionalized in the coming months and years, they remain unacceptable here. And no, before you ask, valuing tolerance does not mean that we have to be tolerant of intolerance. If you think this sounds excessively naive or soft-headed or stereotypically liberal, this may not be the right community for you.

I’m not saying you have to be perfect in execution every time with these things. But you do have to be striving towards them in good faith.

Finally, I want to remind everyone that the Ronin Institute is a community, created specifically so that we can help each other to pursue our individual and collective goals. Normally, we think of this in the scholarly domain – exchanging intellectual ideas, or brainstorming solutions to problems like library access – but I want to encourage everyone to think also in the human domain. This election has brought an ugly part of our society out into the open, and for a lot of people, the country feels less safe than it did a few days ago. Unfortunately, given the incidents that have already occurred around the country, that feeling is probably accurate. The fact is that many people, particularly minority groups – both visible and invisible – are in a much more precarious position now.

I know that many of you don’t know each other, but here’s the thing: I have had at least some interaction with each of you, and we have a fantastic group of folks here. I don’t know what kinds of support people are going to need in the coming weeks, months, and years, but I do know that we have a lot of people who will do what they can to provide that support. So, if there is something that you or others in your community need, please ask. If there is something you can provide, please offer. This, by the way, would be a great use of that Slack account you’ve been ignoring!

Now let’s get to work!

Scientiam consecemus

Jon Wilkins
Ronin Institute