Category Archives: About the Ronin Institute

Scientiam Consecemus!!

Here’s an update for those of you who are following the development of the Ronin Institute. We now have an official motto, in Latin and everything:

Scientiam Consecemus

That’s “Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge” to you.

Thanks go to Research Scholar Kristina Killgrove, who not only came up with the translation, but also indulged my complete lack of Latin by answering a long series of naive yet nitpicky questions.

Now maybe you’re asking yourself, “What the hell sort of motto is that??” Here’s the idea. Traditionally, if a Samurai lost his master, he was expected to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide became Ronin, masterless Samurai who made their living in a variety of ways. They had earned the right to carry their swords, only now they were carrying them for themselves.

Similarly, the traditional view in academia is that a scholar is defined by his or her position at a University (or similar research institution). People who don’t have a traditional academic position are expected to commit a sort of career suicide, abandoning their scholarly research. Our perspective is that you’ve earned your skills, and you still have your tools. You don’t need a master in the form of a University in order to put those skills to use.

So grab your intellectual swords, all you masterless scholars! Let’s chop up some knowledge!

Achievement Unlocked: 501c3 Status!

Greetings to all from the Ronin Institute. We’ve got some good news here. The IRS has officially approved our application for tax-exempt status as a publicly funded 501c3 nonprofit organization!

What does that mean? Well, most importantly, it means that you can now donate to the Ronin Institute to support independent scholarship, and your donation should be tax deductible. Or, as they say on nonprofit websites, “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law,” which is sort of a funny thing to say. I mean, if you gave a donation to me, personally, it would be “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law.” It’s just that, in the case of giving money to me, the full extent allowed by law would be zero.

Here, though, your donation is tax deductible in the same way that that donations to the United Way or the Red Cross are. That is, donations to the Ronin Institute should be unambiguously tax deductible, but if there is any question in your mind about your particular circumstances, you should consult with a tax attorney.

So, if you (or your foundation, or your employer) are looking for some things to donate to before the end of the year, here we are! If you believe in reinventing academia, here we are! If you want to help to support some really high quality independent scholarship, here we are! Now look over to the right and click that Donate button! (If you’re on the main blog page, otherwise, hop on over to the Donation page.)

If you have questions about the Institute, or would like to direct your donation towards a specific program or project, contact us at development@ronininstitute.org.

To the future!

Ronin on the Radio

Buongiorno Ronineschi!

I had two opportunities to speak on the radio about the motivation and goals of the Ronin Institute this week.

Yesterday, I was on WBUR’s Radio Boston, along with Victoria Blodgett, Associate Dean and Director of Career Services for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale. If you’re interested in listening, you can find the segment here.

On Monday, I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth (listen here).

The WBUR segment is about 25 minutes, while the Word of Mouth segment is something like 10-12.

The WBUR segment was called “nice and didactic” on twitter, which I choose to interpret as a compliment.

The Goals of the Ronin Institute

Greetings Roniños y Roniñas!

Over the weekend, your Ronin Institute got some nice press coverage in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. You can read the whole article here. Here’s the take-home message, though:

The goal, Wilkins says, isn’t just offering up a short-term solution to the current scarcity of academic jobs. It’s suggesting a new system altogether, named for ronin—the samurai who broke with the code of feudal Japan, refusing to commit suicide upon the deaths of their masters. “The analogy is, if you’re not employed by a university and you’re an academic, you’re supposed to say, ‘Well, I’m not an academic anymore.’ You’re supposed to sort of commit professional suicide at that point,” Wilkins said. “And what we’re saying is, ‘You know what? No, we can do this. We don’t need a master.’”

The article does a pretty good job of providing an introduction to what we’re all about, but I wanted to take a moment to spell out the goals of the institute a bit more, especially for those people who have found their way here as a result of the Globe article.

Basically, the purpose of the Ronin Institute is to reinvent academia outside of the academy, to invent new ways to fund, support, and connect scholars who are doing their research outside of the traditional setting of the university (or National Laboratory, independent research institute, etc.). Simple enough, right?

The difficulty comes in talking in more detail about this new, alternative model for scholarship. The reason is that there is no single model that we are trying to push. The “right way” to pursue independent scholarship is going to vary from person to person, just as the reasons for pursuing their scholarship independently are going to vary. For some people, independent scholarship is a stepping stone, a way to keep themselves in the game while they are pursuing their long-term goal of securing a more traditional position. For others (myself included), independence is the long-term goal. If you come back and check up on me five or ten years from now, and you find me in a tenured faculty position, it will mean that I have failed (or maybe that I suffered a personality-altering head injury).

For me, there are multiple features of independence that appeal. For one thing, I hate departmental politics, and find that there are things on which I am unwilling to compromise, even when I understand the necessity of compromise. For another, my wife spent fifteen years moving to wherever I needed to be. As an independent scholar, I can move to a place that works well for her, and for our family as a whole. Most importantly, I can define my own research agenda, without worrying about whether or not it fits within someone else’s definition of “evolutionary biology,” and without worrying excessively about issues of fundability. So long as I can bring in enough money to keep paying for the mortgage, groceries, and health insurance, that’s good enough.

I have spent my entire academic career dealing with variations on the following: “It’s great that you’re working on X, or that you’re interested in Y, but you really need to spend more time doing Z.” Now, I don’t know how much time you’ve ever spent doing Z, but it is boring as hell, and it is not clear to me that more Z makes the world a better place. X and Y, on the other hand, are awesome, and there is no doubt in my mind that, fifty years from now, people are going to be saying, “Thank God there was someone who had the foresight to work on X way back then, otherwise where would we be?”

For other people, the answer is different. The Globe article emphasized those people who are having difficulty finding a position. One of the issues with academia is that a gap in your resume can spell disaster. After you go for more than a couple of years without some sort of a position, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something. For these people, continuing to pursue their research in affiliation with Ronin can help to ensure that a two-year gap does not turn into a ten-year gap.

For some people, independence means relief from the geographical constraints of the academic job market, the fact that you basically have to go wherever the job is. This can be particularly hard for those two-academic households, where people are often faced with a choice: either one of you sacrifices your career, or you wind up living in a different city from your partner for much of the year. Of course, there are other things that can constrain a person’s job search. Maybe you need to live within an hour of your home town to look after an ailing parent. Maybe there are only a couple of places where you can live and be close to a religious or ethnic community that is really important to you.

For many people, the problem with academia is the lifestyle: the long hours, the stress, the travel. This is where the idea of “fractional scholarship” that Sam Arbesman and I have been pushing comes in. We believe that the people who would like spend ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week doing scholarly research number in the tens of thousands. Some of these would-be fractional scholars have full-time non-academic jobs that limit their hours. Some simply want to be able to pick up their kids from school every day.

For example, I was recently speaking with a woman whom I know from college. She got her PhD in Physics, and then took time off to have four kids. Now, ten years later, she would like to get involved with research again. It would be a real challenge for her to re-enter the academic job market with that ten-year gap. But, even more, she has no desire to jump back into a seventy-hour-a-week career. What she wants is to be able to use her expertise in and passion for science to do meaningful research, and to get paid to do it, but still to be able to go to all of her kids’ soccer games.

When you’ve got someone with this much intelligence, education, and talent, living in a country this wealthy, it would be ridiculous if we could not find a way to make that work.

The question that people seem to ask most is, “where is the money going to come from?” The answer to this question is actually pretty simple. It’s the same place that money always comes from for research: a combination of grants from federal agencies (NSF, NIH, etc.), private foundations, and individual donors. We will be working with independent scholars to identify, secure, and manage grants for specific research projects, just as university departments do for their faculty. In addition, we will be helping some of our scholars to partner with other researchers, agencies, or even companies to take on consulting jobs or subcontracts that can make use of their expertise and supplement their incomes.

And, of course, the extent to which our independent scholars need money varies from case to case. Some people are in the fortunate position of having a partner with a more traditional job (academic or not) that pays most of the bills. What those people need is mainly legitimacy and community, and maybe money to pay for conference travel and publication costs, so that their academic habit is at least financially neutral in their household. Some people really need to find salary support to make ends meet, even if it is only part time.

We start from the premise that if you have the skills, passion, and training to do meaningful academic research, you should not be precluded from doing it by the arbitrary constraints of the traditional system. Then, of course, there’s the fact that there is nothing that can stop us from reinventing academia when we’re working together. The rest, as they will say in the future, is history.

Ronin Institute post at Wired

So, yesterday I posted about the white paper that Sam Arbesman and I wrote about fractional scholarship for the Kauffman Foundation. Well, we also wrote a piece for Wired, which Sam has posted there now.

The best part is that it features a picture of a statue of Ben Franklin, and right under the picture it notes that the article was co-authored with Jon Wilkins (me). Go read it. Go!

Ronin Institute at the Colorado School of Mines

So, tomorrow (Tuesday, February 28), I will be speaking at The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO about the Ronin Institute. I’ll talk about my own motivations for founding the Institute, the need for independent scholarship, and the potential future for institutes like this one.

If you’re in the area, c’mon down! (Or, up, probably.)

Here’s the official summary from the organizer, Alejandro Weinstein:

“The Ronin Institute, or how to reinvent academia”

by Dr. Jon Wilkins, Ronin Institute

4:30 P.M., Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Alderson Hall Room 151

 

Abstract: After more than 10 years of working in traditional research institutions (Harvard University and the Santa Fe Institute), Dr. Wilkins founded the Ronin Institute with the objective to create an organization that can help to connect and support scholars who, by choice or by chance, do not have an affiliation with a university or other research institutes. In this lecture, Dr. Wilkins will share his motivation to found the institute, his long term vision, and how the Ronin Institute fits in the current academic ecosystem.

 

About the Speaker: Dr. Wilkins is an external professor at the Santa Fe institute and founder of the Ronin Institute. He received an A.B. degree in Physics from Harvard College in 1993, an M.S. degree in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1998 and a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Harvard University in 2002. His interests are in evolutionary theory, broadly defined. His prior work has focused on coalescent theory and genomic imprinting. His current research has continued in those areas, and has expanded into areas like human language and demographic history, altruism, cultural evolution, and statistical inference.

The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship Incorporated

So, here’s an update for you on the development of the Ronin Institute. I’ve written about the concept and motivation for Ronin previously (e.g., here, here, and here). Briefly, the goal is to establish an institute to support scholarly research outside of the traditional (university / government lab / research institute) environment.

Well, the Ronin Institute is now incorporated in the State of New Jersey. The official name of the corporation is “The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship Incorporated.” That’s obviously a mouthful. As it turns out, having something like “Incorporated” or “Corporation” is a requirement for an official corporation name in New Jersey. It seems, then, that the standard practice is to have two names for your corporation. One is the official, legal name. Then, you file additional paperwork to establish a legal alias (like, “The Ronin Institute”), which you can put on your checks, letterhead, etc.

Now, some of you may be reading this and saying, “Why the heck are you forming a corporation?” After all, the whole concept here is that independent scholars want and need is independence, not a corporate overlord. In fact, a “corporation” may sound worse than a university when you think about issues like academic freedom.

Well, it turns out that incorporating is the first step in establishing a non-profit. For the Ronin Institute, the incorporation paperwork was filed on February 13. I have just finished working with the other people who will form the initial board of directors to iron out the bylaws for the institute. The next step will be to submit the federal application for tax-exempt status. At that point, we will have a fully formed non-profit, and we can begin in earnest the work of changing the way that research is done in the country and in the world.

Why am I telling you all of this? For those of you who are interested specifically in the Ronin Institute and its mission – and especially those among you who may eventually be interested in joining up – I want to keep you up to date on our progress.

There may also be some of you out there who are interested in the idea of independent scholarship, and are thinking about forming your own non-profit research institute. For you, I want to provide a sense of how the process works. Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to post information about creating bylaws, establishing a board of directors, and preparing the federal application documents.

In the meantime,here’s an adorable video of an adorable baby aardvark!

Video via Jezebel.

This post cross-posted at Lost in Transcription.

On Ronin and the Importance of Physical Colleagues

Originally posted at Lost in Transcription on December 12, 2011.

So, welcome back to my intermittent live-blog of my adventures in forming a non-profit research institute in order to function as an independent scholar. I’ve written a couple of times before: about my own goals for the enterprise, and about the things that an independent scholar will most be in need of.

One of the things, of course, that an independent scholar needs is colleagues. Depending on the nature of your research, you might be able to do the day-to-day work (math and programming, in my case) entirely on your own, but unless you are a very special sort of misanthropic genius, you need interaction with a set of colleagues. Sometimes you will want to take on collaborative projects that require the expertise of more than one person, but even more, you need knowledgeable people to bounce ideas off of, people who will ask the critical questions that make your work better, or who will drop some jewel of knowledge that lets you see the problem you’ve been working on in an entirely new way.

Now, in principle, much of this can be accomplished on the internet, but I am wondering if there are not certain types of information that more or less require face-to-face contact.

Last week, I was at a “catalysis meeting” at NESCent (the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center) on genomic imprinting. The meeting was superb. It had excellent people who work on the problem from all different perspectives: theorists and experimentalists, molecular and developmental biologists, mouse people, marsupial people, bee people. I learned a ton, and, perhaps more importantly, I learned of the existence of a bunch of things that I didn’t know. I still don’t know them, but now I know that I should know, and I know where to start looking, and whom to ask for help when I get stuck.

As an aside, I also had the chance to meet Craig McClain, Assistant Director of Science at NESCent and doyen of the group blog Deep Sea News.

He was as nice as their blog is awesome.

Some people say that biologists grow to resemble the organisms that they study.

You be the judge.

You might think that meetings like this are particularly efficient for transmitting information, but that you can accomplish the same thing through more aggressive and far-reaching readings of the literature. After all, the organizers of the meeting were able to find these people. In principle, I could just get all of their papers and read them carefully, referring to textbooks on biochemistry or mammalian physiology whenever there was something I didn’t understand.

But I’m not sure that would actually work.

The thing is, some of the most important pieces of information I got at the meeting were things that are not written in papers, or perhaps anywhere, nor are they likely to be. For example, there were a number of people there who have spent years working with lab mice. They have observed thousands and thousands of crosses (e.g., the outcome of a mother of one mouse strain mating with a father of a different mouse strain). This has given them a deep knowledge of what does and does not happen in these crosses, as well as a sense of how sensitive different traits are to the details of the experimental procedure.

An interesting thing was that there were certain results from the scientific literature that none of these people believe, because they are not consistent with their own observations. Now, no one has gone and written a rebuttal letter, or published a set of negative results contradicting the original papers. They have all just sort of implicitly agreed that results using a certain technique, or sometimes results coming from a certain lab, are unreliable, and they move forward with their research as if those results did not exist.

So, there is this substratum of knowledge that is widespread among experts, but which does not find its way into print. In part, this is due to the thanklessness of writing response letters and publishing negative results. In part, I think, it results from a sense of decorum / political consideration. It is common for scientists to have opinions that whole swaths of research are garbage, and it is common for them to share this knowledge in conversation, particularly over beer. However, most are too cautious to put their genuine opinions down in writing — even in e-mail.

As the good folks at Gawker say, “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news!”

Fundamentally, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this arrangement, as it maintains a pretty high bar for calling someone out for doing bad science, but permits people to move forward with what they collectively perceive to be the best possible information. However, it does point to the importance of getting out there and interacting with people face to face. Otherwise, you may find yourself developing a whole research project that is predicated on some results that no one thinks are true.

I should note that this problem is not unique to the independent scholar. If you are working in a typical university department, there may not be anyone else in your department — or only a small number of people — whose research is close enough to your own that you share the same scuttlebutt. That is, no matter who you are, you need to make sure that you pursue opportunities to talk informally — and in person — with the people who care about the same things that you do.

One last observation from the NESCent meeting. This was the first scientific meeting I have attended under my official affiliation with the Ronin Institute. This meant that people would look at my name tag and ask me about it. I would tell them briefly about the idea and my plans for Ronin, and they were all very enthusiastic. The people who had come over from England, in particular, tended to comment on how very brave I was. After I got back, I came a cross this translation guide:

If you work with anyone British, you should print this out and carry it around with you. It serves as a handy guide as to whether you need to be punching them in the nose.

I’m going to assume that this is just wrong. Let’s posit that a better translation for “That is a very brave proposal” would be “Wow! You are a singular genius and an inspiration to children around the world! Also very sexy! Mee-yow!”

My Goals for Independent Scholarship

This was posted at Lost in Transcription originally on August 22, 2011.

So, I’ve already received a number of very thoughtful responses to my previous post, in which I asked for people’s thoughts about the needs of an independent scholar — particularly those needs that could potentially be filled by an outfit like the Ronin Institute. I’ll start sharing those ideas (along with my own thoughts about what is doable) in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I thought that I would share my own goals in starting my own institute. Basically, it is about escaping the constraints of the (university) academic system. Now, that sounds a bit odd when you say it. After all, as far as jobs-with-a-paycheck go, academia provides you with more freedom than most things, in that you have control over both what you do and when you do it.

At least that’s what we all tell each other in grad school.

This recent entry from PhD Comics better sums up the reality on the ground:

The fact is, what you work on as an academic is highly constrained by a number of factors, like what is publishable or fundable. To a certain extent, that is as it should be. You need incentives that encourage people to do high-quality, relevant work. After all, at the end of the day, through whatever mechanism, it is the rest of society that is paying for us to live and eat while we are doing our research.

You may be absolutely fascinated by Heidegger’s early correspondence, and it may well be a worthy subject of the book you’re writing, but it is not unreasonable for society to devote more of its resources to, say, HIV.

The real problem, as I see it, is not the existence of market-style incentives, nor the overall distribution of those incentives, but the way that those incentives are implemented through the bureaucracies of funding agencies and universities.

One key issue is the way that the incentives are channeled through the departmental structure. I think of this in terms of a story that a colleague of mine tells about giving a seminar in a physics department. At the end of the talk, the first comment from the audience was, “That’s really interesting, but it’s not physics.”

(Note that the only appropriate response to such a comment is, “Thank you, and, who the fuck cares?”)

Of course, this problem is not at all limited to physics. Most researchers have, at one time or another, stumbled across an interesting question or collaboration, but have not pursued it the way they might have out of a concern that the work would not be recognized by their department. In many cases, they fear that having an outside interest will actually count against them. This is a widely-acknowledged problem in academia, and is often the motivation for establishing interdisciplinary centers and trans-departmental programs. However, these centers and programs tend to have specific missions, which come with their own constraints and dogmas. And anyway, any academic structure will only be as openminded as the people running it.

The other constraint relates to publication, which is the currency of cultural capital within almost all academic fields. Again, nothing wrong, in principle with requiring people to publish their work, and to have that work scrutinized by their peers. But what about those insights and ideas that don’t lend themselves to whatever the standard publication format is in a particular field? I think that most researchers have also, at one time or another, done an interesting little piece of work that they would like to share, but which is, say, too small to justify a full research paper, or, in some fields, a book. Projects like these may lie dormant on your hard drive for years before finding an outlet, if ever.

My personal situation is exacerbated by the fact that my interests are abnormally diverse. I remember in graduate school, when a lot of people seemed to think that I was some sort of crazy rebel for doing work on two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

Yes, two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

In fact, I have interests in neuroscience and behavioral economics, population genetics, game theory, systems biology, philosophy, and linguistics. Beyond that, I write poetry, and this spring I started a webcomic. Finally, I am a husband and a father, both of which I view as deeply more important than any of my academic interests.

There are people who can pull off being a successful university professor while not ignoring their families. There are also professors who manage to pursue some sort of extracurricular interest.

But unless you’re one of those people who only has to sleep like four hours a day, it is nearly impossible to satisfy your department while working across multiple fields, actively pursuing multiple outside interests, and going home at a reasonable hour

I finally figured out that I was not willing to walk away from any of my other interests, and that I would have to walk away from at least some of them in order to fulfill my obligations to even the most forgiving and open-minded department.

Basically, what I want to do is live a normal, balanced life, and to spend something like 50 or 60 percent of my work time doing things that would be generally recognized as scientific research. Of that “research” bit, only a fraction would fit comfortably within any given department.

The problem is that what I want does not really mesh with the expectations that are placed on you (both institutionally and culturally) within academia.

I am reminded of something that happened way back when I was a biochemistry grad student at the University of Wisconsin. The department organized a sort of career day, where they had people come and talk to us about different career paths. Among others, there were people who were PIs at the university, people working for biotech companies, someone working in forensics, and one guy who was teaching at a small undergraduate college.

The undergraduate teacher explained that the era of the nine-month-a-year academic was over, even at small colleges, as even the smallest colleges now expect you to develop research programs that can involve undergrads and actively pursue grants. However, he said that it did lend itself to living a more balanced life compared with being a PI with a big lab at a major research university.

Then he said this:

“You know, I don’t think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, ‘Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'”

The room suddenly filled with tension, and the organizers quickly hustled him off and introduced the next speaker.

Grad school is about a lot of things: learning a body of knowledge, learning how to perform independent research, etc. But more than all of that, grad school is about being imbued with a set of academic values. This guy, by saying something that is, with just the tiniest bit of perspective, undeniably true, had violated the code. He had undermined the part of our training that was about internalizing the notion that finishing the next experiment / writing the next paper / getting the next grant was more important than anything else going on in our lives.

I suspect that he was not invited back the next year, but his comment has stuck with me. (I’m sorry I can’t recall either his name or school.) I think most of us start of in grad school because we love whatever it is that we’re studying, but then we tend to get caught up in chasing all of the proximate goals (publication, tenure, society membership) that define the academic incentive structure, and many academics lose sight of the fact that there was ever something that excited them so much that they wanted to spend their life studying.

So, that’s my goal. I want to keep my eye on the thing that drew me to academia in the first place. I want to spend my time trying to say things that I believe to be true, recognizing that some truths lend themselves to being expressed as mathematical equations, some as poems, some as comics, and some as rambling blog posts about founding an institute devoted to supporting independent scholarship.