Second Round of Conference Scholarships Awarded

Following the success of our first round of conference support funding, the board authorized that allocation of additional funding to support travel to academic conferences, as well as research-related travel. So, in addition to our first round of awardees, we offer our congratulations to Michael Clarage, Michelle Coughlin, Ruth Duerr, Vicenta Salvador, and Eleanor Wynn.

Smallbridge HallMichelle Coughlin’s award helped to support her trip to the UK to do research for the her next book, The First First Ladies, about the wives of America’s colonial governors. She sent along a number of gorgeous photos of the homes related to Penelope Pelham Winslow, who was married to Plymouth Colony Governor Josiah Winslow. It is great to be able to see the impact of the conference scholarship program.

Our next round of funding is scheduled for January 2017. In the meantime, we are raising funds to continue — and expand — this program. The members of the board have pledged to contribute an additional matching $1000 if we are able to raise $3000 for this program by the end of 2016. So, please consider helping us by making a contribution. You can donate online: select “Conference Scholarships” to direct your donation specifically to this program. To find out more, check out our donation page.

Jeff Rose Walks Out of Africa

Here’s a clip from First Peoples, a 2015 PBS series about the prehistory of the human race. This clip features archaeologist (and Ronin Institute Research Scholar) Jeff Rose talking about his field work in Oman and the very earliest expansion of anatomically modern humans into the Arabian Peninsula, the first step out of Africa in our rapid expansion around the globe. Check it out!

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Honored with Awards

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Ruth Duerr and Soren Scott were honored last week by the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) at the Federation’s January 2016 meeting.


ESIP Awardees, featuring Ruth Duerr (second from left) and Soren Scott (far right). Photo by Bruce Caron.

Headlining the awards ceremony was Ruth Duerr’s receipt of the Martha Maiden Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Earth Science Information Community, which recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated leadership, dedication and a collaborative spirit in advancing the field of Earth Science information”. Ruth has held numerous leadership positions within ESIP, where she has been a consistent champion of data accessibility and stewardship. The nominating committee noted that “Ruth’s dedication to the principles of Earth science information access and sharing are exemplified by her service as an ESIP liaison on many community initiatives, both nationally and internationally, that have led to improvements in capabilities and understanding of the issues necessary to facilitate access to and sharing of Earth science information”.

Soren Scott received the ESIP Catalyst Award, which “honors those who have brought about positive change in ESIP and inspired others to take action”. Current ESIP President Peter Fox noted that Soren “was able to make stagnant and dormant ESIP initiatives become active again in a very short period of time”.

Congratulations to both Ruth and Soren for this well deserved recognition!

Orzack on the Sex Ratio

There’s a new paper out in PNAS (available here) by Ronin Institute Board member and Research Scholar Steven Orzack. It’s also been covered briefly by NPR (listen here). Steven is the founder of the Fresh Pond Research Institute, which is one of the inspirations/models for Ronin, and he played a critical role in helping to get Ronin up and running. So congratulations to him!

But also, it’s a cool paper, where they (Orzack and colleagues from a few different institutions) assembled a crap-ton of data on the sex ratio at various stages of pregnancy, which has allowed them to chart out how that sex ratio changes over time (due to differential mortality of males and females).

So why is this interesting? Well, if you know one thing about sex ratios, you know that there are equal numbers of boys and girls. In humans, sex is determined by the sex chromosomes (X and Y). If you get two X chromosomes, you’re female, but if you get an X and a Y, you’re male. At reproduction, you inherit an X from your mom, and either an X or a Y from your dad. The 50/50 sex ratio follows naturally from the fact that half of his sperm carry his X, while the other half carry his Y.

But if you know two things about sex ratios, you know that the first thing you knew about sex ratios is wrong. In humans, about 51% of the babies that are born are male. (Naturally, that is. In places where there is a lot of sex-specific abortion, like China, the fraction of boys born is higher.) That fact has been known for over a hundred years. It has also been known for a long time that near the end of pregnancy, male fetuses suffer higher mortality than female fetuses. This combination of facts led many people to conclude that at the time of conception, the sex ratio is highly skewed, as high as 56% male, and that higher rates of male mortality during pregnancy bring that ratio down to 51% by birth. Like, maybe sperm carrying Y chromosomes swim faster than sperm with X chromosomes. This is the story that you’ll find circulating around biology departments and in a lot of textbooks.

What this paper shows, however, is that at the time of conception, the ratio is probably very, very close to 50/50. But during the week of pregnancy, there is a higher male mortality rate, so that the sex ratio actually skews female. This seems to be linked to chromosomal abnormalities (like having too many or too few chromosomes), which cause mortality in males earlier than in females. Then, for the next ten to fifteen weeks, there is a higher rate of female mortality, so that the sex ratio correct itself and then becomes male biased. Here’s a figure from their paper, which shows both the timecourse of the change in sex ratio and gives a sense of the diversity of data that was integrated for the analysis:

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 5.20.37 PMThe dip at the end results from the fact that boys tend to be born earlier than girls, so the individuals that are still fetuses start to skew female.

So what does it mean? Hard to say. There’s a lot of theory out there about the evolution of sex ratios, but much of it is hard to test without a lot of data that is hard to get, like what the timecourse of parental provisioning looks like for boys and girls. In fact, it may be impossible to get that data for the social systems relevant to human evolution (depending on how you feel about the use of contemporary hunter-gatherer populations as proxies for the human Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation).

But what it does mean is that all of that theory was trying to explain the wrong phenomenon. Now that we know what the pattern actually looks like, there are a whole lot of new mechanistic and evolutionary questions that are suddenly relevant and interesting.

Kickstart a Two-Volume Collection of Chinese Poems

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Evelyn Ch’ien is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of 600 Chinese poems by diplomat Liao Entao. The annotated collection stands to be a real contribution to a really interesting period in Chinese history — the end of the Qing dynasty, through the Republican period, and the Chinese Civil War. Click here to check out the project, watch the video, and, of course, contribute!

Or, for the click-averse, here’s the description:

This book is a collection of 600 poems written by a diplomat (1864-1954) who lived in China, America, Cuba, Japan and Korea.

For the past 5 years I have been researching the lives of ancestors who participated in the transformation from Qing dynastic rule to the Republican period, and bore witness to the rise of Communist China. After a year in Guangzhou on a Fulbright fellowship, I returned home to find that I had a literary treasure on my hands. With co-editor Professor Puk Wing Kin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we created a team of literary classicists that annotated 600 poems by the professional diplomat Liao Entao (1864-1954). Notably, Entao’s brother was a major player in the 1911 Revolution and the anticipated successor to the Republic’s first president Sun Yat Sen, but sadly Liao Zhongkai was assassinated in 1925.

This collection of poems illuminates the historical events of the period and is a valuable contribution to the history of modern China, helping also to reveal the foundations of diplomacy between China and America.

These poems were originally written in Song Dynasty style and for that reason required annotations to expose its meanings in modern day language. Your participation in our artistic and diplomatic mission is greatly appreciated and will enable the successful completion of our project.

We will also be creating a website and report the progress of the translations to all our contributors, to whom we will give special access. Historical notes, sample translations of poems, and other information will be available. Gifts of $100+ include a translation of 20-30 poems, but every contributor will have access to the site and when the project is completed, the site with the translations and notes will be made public.

As of right now, the project is closing in on $7,000 of the $20,000 goal, with 22 days left. What’s the $20,000 for, you ask? Well, the Kickstarter money is going entirely to publication costs. All of the hard work of assembling, curating, and annotating the poems has already been done — paid for out of a Fulbright Scholarship and out of pocket.

Pledge gifts include copies of poems, etc. At the $200 level, you’ll get your very own copy of the two-volume set. ($50 and up for Volume I)

To be clear, the published books will be in Chinese. So, keep that in mind if you don’t read Chinese. I don’t, but I look forward to having an incomprehensible trophy on my bookshelf.

Also very cool is the translation project, which may be of more interest to the non-Chinese-speakers. The site probably won’t be up until January, but it will allow backers to follow along with the project as it progresses.

The Kickstarter is proceeding at a good pace. Maybe we can convince Evelyn to add a full set of translations as a stretch goal. 🙂 Evelyn?

So go check it out. The poems that you see in the video are some of the actual poems that will be published. This is an excellent example of the value and power of independent scholarship. Let’s get out there and support it!

New Ronin Book on Ralph Waldo Emerson

Congratulations to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Joseph Kramp, who is publishing a new book, Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Psychological Biography, through Mellen Press. The official publication date is 2014, but if you’ve not yet finished up your holiday shopping, you can already preoder it.

Here’s the official description:

A new psychological, social and political examination of Emerson’s life and experience of symbolic loss that demonstrates the importance and purpose of individual and social transformation and revitalizes Emerson’s literary importance for contemporary American society.

So buy, Buy, BUY!!

What’s the Likelihood of a Coup in Eritrea?

An article in the International Business Times reports that on Monday morning there was something that looked like a coup attempt at the Ministry of Information in the capital city of Asmara. The attempt was small and short lived, but noteworthy in a country characterized by extreme isolation and suppression.

The article also quotes Ronin Institute Research Scholar Jay Ulfelder, who builds mathematical models aimed at predicting the likelihood of successful coups in various countries:

“As for what shapes the forecast for Eritrea in particular, it winds up toward the middle of the global pack because it’s a mixed bag,” says Ulfelder.

“On the one hand, it’s a poor country that’s internationally isolated, both of which are associated with increased risk of coup attempts. On the other hand, it’s a very repressive dictatorship, and regimes like that are historically no more coup-prone than fully democratic ones, other things being equal. The regime’s success at quashing dissent is also reflected in the absence of any prior coup attempts, another thing that pulls Eritrea’s forecast down.”

You can find Jay’s 2013 forecast here, along with a discussion of the “high-risk” group of countries.

Please note that Jay the Nate Silver of international coups.

Ronin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on independent scholarship. It profiles nine independent scholars, four of whom are Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute (Patricia Appelbaum, Kristina Killgrove, Jay Ulfelder, and me).

If you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you can read the article here. Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, which especially sucks since this will be of greatest interest to people who are maybe not in a position to pay for the subscription. For you, here are a few of the highlights:

First, here’s the succinct description of one of the main challenges faced by independent scholars:

Like traditional professors, [independent scholars] perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials.


The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can’t or don’t want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner’s income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.

The bulk of the article then focuses on the nine examples of independent scholars, who represent some of the diversity of motivations for people working outside of academia, as well as the diversity of models that people are pursuing to make independent scholarship work.

Near the end is a quote from our website, which sums up one of the primary goals of the Ronin Institute:

“The Ronin Institute is creating a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship,” its Web site says. “There are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource.”

Of course, the goal is not only to leverage this resource, but to allow would-be scholars (and would-be part-time scholars) to live more well rounded, fulfilling lives.

So grab your swords, all you Ronin!

Scientiam Consecemus!

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.