Category Archives: Academia

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Michele Battle-Fisher

Welcome back to our occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the research and other activities of our Research Scholars. Earlier this month, I talked to Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher (pronoun: she/her). Michele’s interdisciplinary research spans public health, complex systems and bioethics. Michele wears many hats. In addition to being a scholar at the Ronin Institute, she is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in Ohio, a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science, and the author of Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics. She was a TEDxDartmouth speaker and a participant in the MIT Press Pitchfest.

Welcome Michele!  2020 has been a bit of a doozy of a year thus far. How are you holding up?

Thanks for having me today. This is kind of cataclysmic for me. Between Black Lives Matter and COVID, I’m kind of in overload. But I think it also brings to the point why I do the work that I do in public health: looking at the ethics and complexity of health care systems. So right now, the ethics are: “why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?” We have an ethical issue of where we’re allocating our money–whether it needs to be on the clinical end or it needs to be on the preventative end. In addition, public health does well in expressing the overarching social determinants that make staying healthy individually and as a population overwhelmingly difficult. Yet, public health continues that fight. As a true Ronin, I use a new angle to add to the social complexity afoot.

Why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?

COVID-19 is showing that we act in–at least in the United States–very much from a reactionary position. We deal with our problems when they happen. With this pandemic, I hope we will have a larger discussion of the pre-existing health disparities of people of color, LGBTQ, plus disability. The list could go on and on. It illuminates the holes we have in society and how some of us are falling into those holes. And they’re not throwing a rope in order for us to get us out of that well. So I really dedicate myself to that work and I hope that it’s doing some good.

You published your book, the Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics by Springer back in 2016. It seems to have even more relevance now that public health is front and center.  Is there more interest in that scholarship?

In 2012, I took part in a research program with the National Institutes of Health, it was called ISSH (Institute on Systems Science and Health), that brought together 45 competitively selected  researchers in the areas of agent based modelling, social networks and system dynamics. I reaffirmed my love for systems there. 

I started writing the book back in 2015.  And it started out from a blog that I had run for about two years previously – called Orgcomplexity.  I started trying to connect this whole idea of systems thinking, which came from general systems theory and systems biology – and also the world of physics with chaos and emergence and attractors. I worked very publicly through those ideas, which to some may be foolish because I was doing something that wasn’t within the norm. I was able to actually work out ideas, have people react to my ideas and work on this framework.  

Is a systems approach always the best approach to public health?

Yes and no: it may surprise some who say: “well, isn’t everything complex?” And do we always look at it from that complex lens? We don’t always do that because it also depends on the question you’re asking. Some questions are best answered from a very linear reductionist standpoint: biostatistics measures for example. Those methods are appropriate for those questions. I am just asking that if the question is divergent in nature that we do not jump to using convergent solutions. We are all susceptible to mental models which is the first step for making sense of our world. Ecological framing is not new to public health and explains well the nested, concentric elements that make up health as we live it. Systems thinking calls us to rely on a more dynamic, time-based understanding of nested interdependent elemental systems when appropriate.   

Why did you write a book, rather than publishing journal articles?

I chose not to do journal articles, because number one, I couldn’t get past the reviewers. Because they said: “well, we had other methods and those work, so why do something new?” And then because I wasn’t doing strictly analytical work, that would just get lost by the next journal article. I wanted there to be some type of salience, the ability for me to have a bigger footprint over a longer period of time. So I thought, “Okay, let’s be foolish and write a book”. And so that’s what I did. The second thing was that I was selected as a scholar at a place called the Hastings Center, which is located just north of New York City. And I was brought there as a specialist, as a visiting scholar. And I brought this really kooky idea saying that ethics are complex and they’re like “that is new”. And they just let me do it. That was the first time I felt freedom to actually push the envelope and try to do something that wasn’t expected. 

Were there others working with this perspective?

I don’t want to say that there was nobody else in ethics doing this, but it wasn’t apparent to me that there was a large cluster who were using this perspective.  Sometimes in academia, people follow each other like sheep. And I just decided to be a cow and not a sheep: I’m chewing cud and they’re just following each other – being herded. But in all fairness, I’m still in the academic world and to be published to have any success in that field. I certainly see the worth and the need for academia, but I also know that academics can be very smothering at times. Innovation is not something that they take to readily. So taking different perspectives just takes time, effort and patience. When you’re going up for tenure, there’s little room or time to be innovative. But I love what I do. I really cannot see myself doing anything else. 

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Measuring the right one thing

By Ronin Research Scholar Emily Lankau. This first appeared in July 2020 on LinkedIn.

City Slickers was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It was released during 1991 when I was just on the brink of adolescence. For some odd reason, the story resonated with me then and still does today.

The movie tells the story of Mitch Robbins, a burned-out businessman who gets dragged along on a cattle drive through the southwestern US. At the start of the film, Mitch is going through a premature mid-life crisis at 38 years old.

Mitch manages to befriend the crotchety old cowpoke, Curly, who is leading the sorry expedition of “city slickers”. Riding along on horseback, Curly and Mitch have a deep conversation about the individual choices we make as we try to make sense of our lives.

Curly holds up his index finger and says to Mitch “The secret of life is this. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

“What’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.

“That’s what you gotta figure out.” Curly replies.

Mitch spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what that one thing is. He eventually becomes a pretty decent cowboy and certainly a better man.

*****

A few months ago, I was considering leaving a traditional job with benefits to return to full-time consulting – possibly as a long-term career decision or maybe as a shorter-term place to land to sort some things out. Either way, there were some really good reasons to go; there were also some good reasons to stay.

While contemplating this decision, this scene from City Slickers got stuck in my head. Ruminating on this scene then led me back to another favorite, a book that I read in a freshman literature class during college – Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.

It all seemed a little random, but the subconscious makes interesting connections sometimes. How is a 90’s Billy Crystal comedy related to an early 20th century philosophical novel? It’s like the set up to a bad joke.

But it turns out that the connection is simple – both offer lessons about how we find and define meaning in life. Both meant something to me as I navigated previous transitions in my life and now were converging as I navigated the current one.

The meaning of life is a common theme in art for good reason – it is the central thing we all grapple with from cradle to grave.

What is my purpose? How can I leave something of value behind in the world?

Work, what we do to earn a living, can be central to answering these questions.

Steeped in careerism throughout my academic education, work and career success had become a load-bearing beam of my self-worth. So much so, that I became paralyzed in a work situation that was not healthy for me or for my family.

For the longest time, I couldn’t make the decision to leave because the job and the mission I served in that role had become central to my identity in a way that made it impossible to walk away unscathed.

I stayed too long in a situation that, for reasons that were beyond my control, simply wasn’t for me. I had worked so hard to get there, and I could not accept that it was not what I wanted it to be, that it was damaging me.

My career has been decidedly non-linear because I am the spouse of a tenure-track professor. Like the tail of a comet, I have trailed behind my partner, simultaneously propelled forward and constrained by the trajectory and momentum of his success. I have watched opportunities pass by – green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach due to the orbital velocity that takes me near, but never quite to, a destination that I would choose if I were free to chart my own course.

I am highly trained in a relatively specialized field where job openings are rare and competitive. Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone finds a stable place at the table. Without geographic mobility, the odds of successfully landing one of these prized opportunities are negligible.

I have had to learn to translate and transfer my skills and training into areas far outside of my original career goals for the sake of my family. I have turned myself into a pretzel, time and time again, to fit the available jobs that happen to coincide with our physical location. I have learned to serve and to love the missions that are available to me, to embrace them as my own, even as I mourn the missions I cannot access.

It has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but these contortions have also taught me a remarkable agility and open-mindedness that makes me an asset to clients who are looking for new insights on their systems. I bring a rather unique, outsider’s perspective to nearly everything I do.

Measuring and managing performance is one of the services I offer as a consultant. Because I am the daughter of my remarkably efficient mother, I am innately good at making processes work more smoothly and defining how to measure those improvements. I have had some formal training in program evaluation and performance management to compliment this aptitude. It is a powerful skill to have.

And despite this talent for helping others fix problems and document successes, I have failed to find a satisfying way to steer and mark my own career progress as a trailing spouse. I have walked a Seussean path, all the while celebrating my partner and friends as they make clear, measurable strides forward in their own careers. Perpetually unable to see beyond the next bend in the road, I have often wondered if I am going anywhere at all.

During March, my career had hit an impasse. Nothing was working. I felt stuck. So, I did what I would recommend to a client whose program was not having the effects that they intended. I stood at a white board and drew a massive logic model of my life.

Then I stepped back and stared at it for a while, hoping a pattern would emerge that would point the way forward. I squinted and blinked, trying to find the right plane of focus where the magic eye picture suddenly emerges from the noisy cacophony of colors and shapes.

If a client hired me to do a program evaluation of me, how would we measure success?

What are the right performance metrics for measuring the meaning in one’s life and career?

What’s the one thing?

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisco is a painter who struggles with fear of failure and procrastination. She has great aspirations, yet doubts her abilities. She sees painting as a way to create a bulwark against the chaos of passing time and the detachment of the human experience.

Lily seeks to capture reality on her canvas to “make of the moment something permanent”. She wants to create something tangible to leave in the world. Lily finds meaning in producing something of value, in the identity of being a painter.

Lily spends the whole book trying to find the just-right way to start a painting. Lily is afraid to begin because a wrong decision at the start could spell disaster: “At what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions… Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

I read To the Lighthouse for the first time on the brink of adulthood. I identified with Lily. Not knowing where to begin, I chased what others ordained as markers of a productive scientific life: publications, presentations, book chapters, reports, awards, job titles.

Young scientists are generally taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that their publication counts, journal impact factors, citation indices, and academic titles are concrete measures of their worth. All you have to do to be successful is jump over the bar; publish enough, get tenure.

Young scientists are rarely told that the publish-enough bar is comparative; success in academia is graded on an ever-rising curve and only a small percentage of doctoral-degree holders achieve tenure. Clearing the perpetually-moving bar is an unattainable goal for many scientists and there is no shame in that. The deck is stacked.

Now, nearing 40, staring at the bizarre logic model of my life, I noticed that the concrete products of my scientific efforts were notably absent. The missions I had served and the values that brought me to those missions were there, but the papers, presentations, and job titles held were not. That I had forgotten to list them seemed to mean something.

I realized that this white board was my version of going on a cattle drive. I was having an early mid-life crisis. That realization made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes.

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

Mrs. Ramsey, another central character in the novel, offers a very different solution to finding meaning in a world of impermanence. “Life stand still here,” she said, knowing the whole time that the stockings would always be too short and the children always growing older. Mrs. Ramsay finds meaning in the moments that pass between people, in relationships.

When Mrs. Ramsey throws a dinner party, she looks around and sees that human connection does not happen spontaneously. It takes effort. Someone has to begin. “Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her… for if she did not do it nobody would do it.”

Mrs. Ramsey knew how to make of the moment something permanent. All it takes is the courage to risk all happiness on the success of a single small interaction. Like a painter facing a blank canvas, Mrs. Ramsey looks at her dinner party gathering and then makes a sweeping brush stroke, a beginning, an attempt. She encourages others to be open, to connect, and to find meaning in the smallest things, like having a meal together.

When I was 18, I dismissed Mrs. Ramsey’s answer. Finding meaning in relationships felt too domestic, too stereotypically feminine to be the right way to navigate in a world that was and is still quite dominated by male standards of success. There is no resume section for documenting how nice you are*. Kindness does not get you a tenure-track or executive-level job. Those, I had been taught, were decided on cut-throat productivity.

But nearing 40, I realized that I would be solidly identified as a “Mrs. Ramsey” if Buzzfeed ever did a “Which character from To the Lighthouse are you?” quiz. I felt so daft when I finally figured out something that should have been so obvious.

Every career decision I have ever made was about my family, the people I work with, and the missions I serve. I have never made a decision based on salary, productivity, or clout.

Some of my career choices have involved sacrificing all three of the latter at the same time to make space for the former. To have the security to be able to consistently choose based on these values has been a privilege afforded to me by my partner’s success – the thing that holds me back has also, in some ways, liberated me.

Trailing along on my partner’s orbit, I have struggled to feel like I have fully “arrived” in my career for years. We decided together, for very practical reasons, to prioritize his job. I am innately more flexible in my ambitions, so it seemed like the right choice when we made it. I fully own the decisions that have made my career challenging – they are not his to feel guilty about, although he does some days.

I wish I never had to make a choice between a fulfilling job in my area of expertise or my family. I do not, however, regret putting them first.

Staring at the white board, lightning struck, and I realized that I did not feel out of sync because I was making bad decisions, but rather because I was measuring my performance with the wrong metrics. Then I wrote a list down the left side of the diagram – the name of every person who I have ever taught, mentored, supported, opened doors for, or defended against injustice during my career. Often, none of this was in my actual job description at the time. Sometimes, I have even stepped out in front of others with little regard to my own safety and I have borne the consequence of those choices willingly. For if I did not do it, it was possible that nobody would.

Being available to my family and giving other people a leg up on their own journeys – these are things that I have always prioritized over publishing papers or making my own next big career move. Those decisions have shaped my life in so many ways that I failed to take note of because they were not on the list of performance metrics that I was taught to value.

Because their successes are their own, not mine, I had not thought to include all of these people on my own logic model. Yet, I was there to cheer them on, witness their tears and frustration, or protect them when they needed a shield. As they each ran their own races, I was one of the people manning a water table along their marathon routes.

Passing out proverbial cups of water isn’t a contribution that can be quantified or listed on a resume, yet each person on this list is a living measure of my career success.

Trapped by an unfair choice in the tail of a comet, I have found small ways to use the stability and privilege of my partner’s orbit as traction for pushing others towards those green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach. And I am so proud of each of them and their successes, especially the ones who now work in the jobs I dreamed about during graduate school.

It was only then, with that list of names added to the messy diagram of my life, that I could see the pattern in the noise. Only then, did I fully realize how I should always have been measuring success in my own career all along.

This is the one thing. My one thing. The thing that has always been there as the measure of meaning in my life, even when I failed to see it.

*Note that this sentence is not strictly true. There is actually one line on my resume that is entirely about being nice. It is the scientific equivalent of being awarded the title of Miss Congeniality and I cherish that award more than anything else.

The value of independent scholarship in a time of upheaval

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter.  It first appeared as an editorial in the June 2020 issue of Kitsune

“We know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.”

Our lives and institutions have been radically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. This applies too, to scholarly institutions. The consequences for both individual scholars and the systems of academia are likely to be far-reaching. From my perspective as a US-based, early career scientist, I share some observations and reflect on the value of independent scholarship to the scholarly community, particularly at a time when the pandemic is straining traditional academic careers and institutions.

One source of insight into impacts of the pandemic is its effect on the livelihoods and careers of scholars. As an early-career scientist I’m especially attuned to the job market for new hires. This year, 2020, and likely beyond, will feature a horrible academic job market. This spring, colleges and universities froze hiring while many faculty searches were incomplete; those positions remain unfilled and their long-term fate in limbo. As long as student revenue, endowments, and state budgets are depressed, faculty hiring will be scant. New hiring won’t be all that’s affected. My tenure-track colleagues are concerned about lost productivity and inequities in who can still do research at a time when children are home, and while labs and field sites are closed. As we have already begun to see, colleges and universities, especially those whose budgets depend heavily on tuition and fees, will make more radical cuts—including to tenured and tenure-track faculty—in the name of financial stability. Some institutions already in financial peril will close their doors permanently.

These events play out on top of existing flaws in the system. I made the choice to leave a traditional academic path pre-covid for a constellation of reasons. Most importantly, I face limits on my career growth at my current institution that I find untenable. At the same time, I am unwilling to pay the personal costs of moving to a different part of the country, even for a “dream” tenure-track job. For me, these costs would include disrupting my spouse’s career, leaving a community we love, and the inability to support a disabled family member living nearby. Others experience different barriers to and strains on traditional academic careers, but the outcome is similar: many scholars are considering whether to leave this path. The pandemic fallout in academia suggests that many also will soon be pushed off, less than willingly.

In this environment, I believe independent scholarship may be more important than ever. I study ecology, in which a key principle is that biological diversity makes ecosystems more stable, and even more productive. Analogously, independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole by enabling more paths through scholarly careers, and expanding who is actively engaged in scholarship at any time. As the pandemic exacerbates academia’s shortcomings, I see potential for the number of independent scholars to grow. This, I think, can be a good thing, even if the events leading to a scholar’s independence might be traumatic and unjust. Extending a bit further the metaphor on biological diversity, we know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.

One thing standing in the way of this vision is that relatively few recognize that independent scholarship is an option, or that groups like the Ronin Institute exist to mitigate some major pitfalls of independent scholarship. The costs of independent scholarship’s low visibility are two-fold. On one hand, scholars who don’t realize it’s an option can’t ask whether it’s right for them. On the other, structural factors hindering independent scholarship might be ameliorated if our position were better known. Understanding that not all who leave academia will become independent scholars, nor should all independent scholars be Ronin Scholars, I hope that Ronin Scholars and friends of the Institute will spread the word.

Jon Walter is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. He is also affiliated with the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. He is the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research, a research and consulting firm and co-hosts a podcast called “Major Revisions” that comments on topics in ecology and academia from the perspective of three early-career scientists. You can read more about Jon and his research on his website.

An academic Strike For Black Lives being held Wednesday June 10, 2020

As part of the ongoing protests and calls for action to address systemic racism in our institutions and our society following the murder of George Floyd, the group Particles for Justice is calling for all academics to pledge to suspend their academic duties for the entirety of today, Wednesday June 10:

We will stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

We will also stop activities that advance our own scholarship, including performing research, reading and submitting papers, or sending e-mails about research.

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Many scientific organizations, including arXiv, some publishers, and many other academics, including some Ronin Research Scholars are taking part in this day. You can pledge here:

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat

Note: This is a guest post by Research Scholar Jose Luis Perez Vazquez, whose book, The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat, has just been published. Enjoy! — JFW

Through the years I have seen trainees wanting to perform research in academia only to abandon the idea due to what they perceive around them, due to what they sense will become of them after joining the professorial ranks. I have also met many lay people who were impressed, to say the least, by certain aspects of research in academia. Thus I decided to write a book on scientific research in our times to inform lay audiences and young trainees about the rise of a new type of scientist: the scientist bureaucrat (https://www.springer.com/in/book/9783030123253). It is a brief account of how the practice of science and its academic environment have been transformed due to current socio-economic circumstances.

There is no room here to go over the many details about this matter that are touched upon in the book, for the topics are many, from peer review to the publication game, passing through the funding tendencies and the assessment of scholars by institutions, things that all professional scholars know about (but perhaps not the young fellows and general populace). I have illustrated current shortcomings with some of my personal experiences … and a touch of humour. Suffice to say that today’s researchers are buried in bureaucracy and financial issues. The driving forces behind a scholar ?e.g. creativity, curiosity, motivation? are drowned in the monstrous sea of administration, corporatization of academia, and intense competition for funds and positions. In contrast to past generations, we “new scientists” are left with almost no time to dedicate to what we should be doing: research, creative work, experiments, data analysis. Now, principal investigators (PIs) have trainees and technicians doing all these things for them, whereas some PIs are so busy with administrative chores and searching for money to keep their laboratories going that barely step into their laboratory. This is one of the various paradoxes expounded in the text, for after all we were taught how to do good quality experiments, data analysis, in a word, research;  yet after joining the professorial ranks we change habits, now we research for funds, we “analyse” bureaucratic data.

But not all is about complaining, or rather, describing the reality as it is. I present too in the book sections on possible solutions to circumvent some of the aspects that prevent us from doing what we (or at least most of us) really like: real research. While most of the solutions are just specific workarounds to overcome certain things (that, again, professional scientists know about but may be informative to trainees), I wanted as well to propose some general solutions to, at least in part, go back to what true scholarship is. It perhaps should be acknowledged that the current state was inevitable; it had to happen because science is immersed in society, and modern society is governed by financial concerns and bureaucracy. If I were to point out a central theme that brought about the current status quo, it could be the result of the current global economic situation which together with the spread of administration and the deep involvement of politicians into the fabric of academia is deviating scholarship from what once was. But there may be still time to revert.

To me, the main cause of trouble we face today is lack of balance that pervades many aspects of research. Imbalance in funding big groups versus the individual scientist (somehow in these days funding agencies prefer to award grants to big groups, in spite of the fact that it is the individual scientist the driving force behind research and that putting many heads together does not equal to better scientific outcome); disparity in funds for infrastructure versus operating research; inequality in the scientists’ time dedicated for administrative work versus real research in the laboratory; disproportion, inequity in the appraisal of research favouring the administrative and lucrative outcomes over work done in the laboratory … It is my opinion that the general situation in academia and science in particular would be greatly improved if an equilibrium was found in these aspects: a fairer distribution of resources between big groups and individual researchers, between hypothesis-driven and question-driven projects, between utilitarian and holistic grant proposals, a balanced evaluation of scholars considering work in the laboratory and administration. Because the problem is not that some administration has to be carried out ?I don’t think anybody would complain if some bureaucracy occupied a little of our time? but the problem is that these activities occupy most of our time as scientists, and we have little left for what we really like: to think, to reflect on questions, perform experiments, analyse data, and interpret results.

In the text I mention what perhaps is the most intriguing situation, the most paradoxical of all. While the majority of researchers disagree about what academia has become, we scientists proceed doing things as though we did not notice. If almost all of us realise the present condition, why don’t we change it? Some reasons have been advanced, for instance in Eliane Glaser’s article “Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?” (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/bureaucracy-why-wont-scholars-break-their-paper-chains/2020256.article). But I am not sure why. Inertia comes to mind, perchance herd mentality. To some extent one has the impression that we behave as if we did not know, or decided to ignore the situation. It has been my experience that one day I discuss matters with a colleague about the folly of impact factors or any other aspect, both of us voicing our disapproval, and yet, a few days later I meet my colleague in the hall and starts telling me with great enthusiasm that they have a paper accepted in this or that journal of very high impact factor…

Nonetheless, things appear to be changing thanks to initiatives talked about in the book like the Bratislava Declaration, the Leiden Manifesto, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and others. These provide reasons to be optimistic, but it will take time, and most likely I won’t see it, but I think some aspects will revert to what academia once was.

One action that I think is fundamental to solve the current situation has been in fact alluded in the aforementioned Glaser’s article: “Ultimately, resistance is impossible without collective solidarity.” I agree, it is in the collective realisation, agreement, and behaviour where the real possible solution stands. Politicians and bureaucrats may have the money and resources but in the end are we, scholars, performing these tasks of, say, using impact factors or numbers of publications to judge colleagues and institutions or to award grants. Imagine all scientists, simultaneously, refused to use these metrics. What are the policy-makers going to do? They cannot evaluate grant proposals or papers, or scholars applying for promotions; they don’t have the knowledge.  But if only a few decide not to comply with the bureaucrats’ commands, then it will be futile, for other, more compliant, academics will be found and ask to perform those duties. Hence, in the final analysis, it all depends on us scientists.

The Ronin Institute at Performing the World in NYC

Performing the World (PTW) is a biennial conference with a focus on building communities, social change and performance. This year it is being held in New York City on September 21-23. Here’s the description from the conference website:

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.

Building on the conversations started in the related CESTEMER meeting  last year, several Ronin Institute Research Scholars will be holding a session “Performing New Models of Scholarship at the Ronin Institute” at 5:15pm on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be joining Research Scholars  Kristina Baines, Victoria Costa, (Kristina and Victoria are also co-founders of the Cool Anthropology collective), Jocelyn Scheirer, and Jon Wilkins. They will be giving short presentations on their different projects and how they feed into new models of doing research in their fields and beyond. The panel after will invite the wider PTW community to collectively explore a better future for scholarship.

If you’re in the NYC area and interested in attending, come join us! I believe it’s not too late to register. Let us know if you do!

Revisiting the “gig economy” for science on Labor Day

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.

Last year, Nature interviewed several freelance scientists, including our own Anne Thessen, in an article “Science in the gig economy”, prefacing the interviews with:

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.

Platform co-operatives

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 out elsewhere, 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.

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…

Beyond the “alt-ac”

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.

In a piece “To a Revolutionary Degree: Power to the PhDs” on Public Seminar, John Paulas is having none of it:

…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.