Category Archives: COVID-19

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.

Living in a world of Covid-19

Covid-19 has had a drastic impact on people everywhere. Over the past few weeks, we collected stories from Ronin Research Scholars about what their life has been like in different parts of the world. The Scholars here present their stories from Pakistan, United Kingdom, Dubai, and Germany.


Dr. Tamseela Hussain, Pakistan — April 5, 2020

My husband is an ICU doctor and I am a consultant of medical informatics. 

Pakistan has approx 2600 cases thus far since Feb 2020 and we expect more as we continue testing. Pakistan continues to struggle with food for daily wagers as they suffer the most during lockdowns. Medical staff and general public are struggling with PPE and masks etc.

I would like to share with Ronin that I have created an Informatics form for Covid-19 management with basic clinically relevant Covid parameters. This form can be used for research purposes as secondary use of data but I created it for primary use of data for monitoring disease progression and regression.

It is mandated by the government of Pakistan that whomever tests positive “must “be admitted in a hospital until negative. Whereas other parts of the world, self quarantine can be done at home.

My Covid-19 form has clinically relevant data fiends eg signs symptoms monitoring, labs, imaging and sofa scores/ vent / ICU management for morbidity and mortality. 


Keith Tse, York, United Kingdom—March 31, 2020

UK universities and cities on lockdown. All events and classes cancelled and all premises closed indefinitely, apart from those that sell basic and essential amenities. The weather has been good (clear and increasingly warm) but the atmosphere is quite eerie. 


Yasmina Jraissati, Dubai—March 29, 2020

I don’t know if it’s the warm and sunny weather, or if it’s a childhood spent in war time Lebanon (and so many things today remind me of that part of my life), but on a personal level, I feel things are going rather smoothly over here. Confinement is recommended, but for the moment not imposed. We get to go for a short walk in the park every couple of days. Our 4 year old seems to have developed an unexpected capacity to play on his own for several hours in a row – thank god for Legos! Things seem to be under control (but things always seem under control here, so we’re not very certain), in the sense where interesting measures have been recently put in place and/or announced for the near future: Isolating people in redesigned hotel rooms even when their symptoms are only mild; disinfecting the streets at night; screening people in their houses starting with more densely populated areas; drive through testing facilities for those who feel they need a test. 

I keep thinking about how the post-covid world will look like. Part of me wants to think it will be back to how it was. But another part of me deep down worries that the world will change drastically, like it has after the 9/11 attacks. I can see how no government will want to risk another similar pandemic. A perfect reason (excuse?) to have more controls on borders, to increase surveillance on people’s movements, and now even health situation. So many opportunities for abuse… Maybe with the way the world has become (increased interaction and quick travel) something like that is needed? This is a painful thought for people like me who have believed all of their lives in a certain concept of freedom and respect for privacy.


Martin Bohle (Ukko), Germany— March 27, 2020

I am part of the semi-public relief structure (Red Cross) in my town in rural Germany. We are in structured ‘close-down’, that is a three-tier choice as to what kind of business is maintained or closed. Local number of infected are high for Germany, but not extreme. 

The activity in the relief structure keeps me busy. 

Aside from that, I follow-up on my science (publications & review). Combining both I’m drafting a piece explaining exponential growth – a kind of fairy-tale about the ‘exponential soap maker’. Once it is ready, I’m happy to share it. Also, I did build a tool to extrapolate numbers of infected people. It can be shared.

p.s. https://www.salzburgglobal.org/news/latest-news/article/martin-bohle-the-smile-of-the-imaginator.html

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 scholarly community. Ultimately this will allow us to connect, support and strengthen 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 actively helps to advance our shared goals as an Institute. Importantly, it means that all decision-makers (and leadership) are also scholars. This concept informed our development of the Working Groups, as well as how we think about leadership across the Institute.

Because we want to create a governance structure that is right for Ronin–while being careful NOT to create top-heavy 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 lead: Emily Monosson

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!