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!”

Universities as Resource Aggregators

This was originally posted at Lost in Transcription on October 26, 2011.

So, I had not realized until I got a twitter-prompt from Kiona Strickland that so much time had passed since I put out my call for opinions on what one would need to successfully do academic research outside the confines of traditional academia.

The call was put out in the context of my own goal of incorporating as a non-profit called the Ronin Institute to pursue my own scholarship.

A remarkable number of people shared extensive and thoughtful comments. I hope to respond directly to each of you quite soon as well.

Responses came from people who are already functioning outside of academia, people who are thinking about doing so, and people who are successful and reasonably happy professors at this or that institution.

There were a huge number of specific things that came up in the responses, but they seemed to cluster around the following five things:

1) Money

2) Library access

3) Colleagues

4) Legitimacy

5) Infrastructure

It occurs to me that each of these needs points to the fundamental role of universities are resource aggregators. By that I mean that they facilitate what in economic terms would be called “economy of scale” (or in voodoo complexity science terms “emergence”). I’ll take each one of these in turn.

1) Money. This is of course, the biggest thing that many scholars are worried about, especially these days. You’ve found something that you love. You’ve gained enormous expertise in it. Quite possibly, there is some particular thing (maybe a behavior in some species, or a period of history of some specific location) on which you have become the most knowledgable person in the world. It seems like you ought to be a way to turn that into a paycheck, right?

Fundamentally, we all have to work within the constraints set by how much funding there is out there to support scholarship in a particular area. You can total up the budgets of then NSF, private foundations, and so on, and it provides a sort of upper bound on what can be supported. In many fields, there is the perennial problem of over-production of PhDs, which is constantly putting pressure on this upper bound, but that’s a post for another day.

Within those constraints, an independent scholar has to deal with two things. First, the money available for their research may not be enough to live on. Second, their grant support may fluctuate over time. In most fields, universities help with the first by creating ways to subsidize your scholarship through teaching or other activities.  If you are, for instance, a clinical researcher in a university hospital, you may have an arrangement where the less grant money you have, the more time you spend treating patients.

Universities help to address the inevitable fluctuations in grant support by effectively averaging financial support across individuals and over time. I may have a grant shortfall this year, but they keep paying my salary (at least nine months of it). Presumably, this is, on average, compensated by the overhead they take in when I do have grant support, from the classes I teach, and from donors who are impressed by the prestige of my department.

It is not obvious to me that the Ronin Institute will be able to do much of anything on this front, unless I win the lottery. However, I believe that it could serve as a hub for communication among independent scholars, many of whom might have more creative ideas to share.

2) Library access. Access to scientific journals and books is an absolute necessity for any real scholarship. Here, the resource aggregation is perhaps most obvious. A university will typically have institutional subscriptions to a huge number of academic journals, and affiliation with the university gives you access to those journals. University libraries also usually have huge number of “books,” which are sort of like the web, but printed out on paper.

Legend has it that in an era before the invention of the blog, people used to buy, sell, borrow, and occasionally read, books. Image via Wikipedia.

This, again, is something that would be difficult for the Ronin Institute to replace. Fortunately, there are work-arounds available to many independent scholars. For books, many universities have mechanisms to make their collections open to the public. You’ll want to contact the school(s) closest to you to find out.

For most scholars, the most important thing, though will be electronic access to the journal articles, preferably via some mechanism that works while you’re at home in your pajamas. The trick is to acquire some sort of (non-paying) affiliation with a university. You might be able to use your alumni status do this with your alma mater, or you might be able to arrange some sort of adjunct or visiting position with a university close to you.

3) Colleagues. The most valuable resource that universities aggregate is people. At a university, you can be surrounded by people who care about things as obscure as the things you care about. You get continually exposed to new ideas both in formal settings like seminars and in informal ones like waiting in line for a latte. Some of these colleagues may then become collaborators.

It is easy, I think, for an independent scholar to recede into isolation. Your research can suffer from a general lack of intellectual stimulation. It can become sloppy if you are not being challenged by smart people who have expertise that overlaps with and complements your own. And, of course, some of the most interesting projects are those that integrate knowledge, expertise, and ideas from different areas. Those projects will absolutely require strong communication or collaboration among multiple people with different backgrounds.

Being an independent scholar has the potential to be a lonely existence, even if you do have a balloon.

Then, of course, there’s the purely social / emotional component. For most of us, being a truly independent researcher would be a terribly lonely and unsatisfying existence. I think we all need someplace where we can go and say something like, “I’m so sick of working on this grant proposal,” or, “You won’t believe what Reviewer 3 wants me to change,” where people will get it.

In principle, this is an area where the Ronin Institute could make a contribution. It could serve as an online hub where independent scholars can share their ideas and experiences, maybe even find collaborators. What do you think? If there were a reasonable online community of Ronin, would you participate? Do you imagine that it would help?

4) Legitimacy. This, to be honest, was one of my primary motivations. If you submit a grant proposal or paper from your home address, the reviewers are probably not going to take you seriously. It’s a shame, but the fact is that most reviewers are going to be traditional academics themselves, and may be instinctively distrustful of alternative careers.

This, again, is a place where the Ronin Institute might be able to contribute something. I am leaning towards creating a mechanism through which independent scholars could acquire some sort of affiliation with the Ronin Institute. This would come with an e-mail address and the ability to cite the Ronin Institue as an institutional address. My instinct is that if you have a way of publishing under a university address (e.g., as an adjunct professor or visiting scholar), that will benefit you more, but who knows. I’m still weighing the pros and cons on this one, and am trying to think about just how open the affiliation would be. In any event, it would probably be somewhat restrictive at the beginning, as I would want to limit the numbers for logistical considerations, at least to start.

5) Infrastructure. The last thing that universities provide is all the other people and stuff that you could never have on your own. This includes grant administrators, accountants, clerical support, IRBs, etc. It also includes equipment. In the experimental sciences, it might be expensive lab equipment, which only makes economic sense when it is shared among three labs, each of which has fifteen or twenty grad students, postdocs, and technicians working there. Even if your work is primarily theoretical or computational

This is an area where the Ronin Institute could, in principle, contribute. It is conceivable that, in the future, independent scholars could run grants through the Ronin Institute, and the overhead from those grants could support one or more people who could administer the grants. Similarly, maybe it could pool money to pay for shared software licenses.

This is not anything that is going to happen anytime soon, however. If a sufficient (and sufficiently active) community grows here, though, it is something that we might consider a few years down the road.

The Hall of Doom would have been difficult for any one supervillain to afford on his or her own.

In the meantime, we might be able to compile a list of resources, ways to access those science-y things that you need occasionally, but could not possibly hope to own.

Next Time: 

As you might expect, many of the responses also focused on all the things that don’t work for them in traditional academia. That will be the next update.

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.

Calling All Ronin

This was originally posted at Lost in Transcription on August 20, 2011:

So, last week I posted about my plans to start my own non-profit research institute, to be called the Ronin Institute. Interestingly, I got a handful of notes from people inquiring — with various levels of facetiousness — about joining up. That matches up with my experience of talking to people in person about this plan, where a significant fraction of people ask to join up in a semi-joking sort of way.

In fact, one of my long-term goals for this venture is 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 institute. Originally, I had viewed that as something that I would start building in a couple of years, after getting the basic place established. However, it seems that even the semi-joking responses point to a genuine desire by a lot of people for something.

I’m not sure exactly what that something is, but I have a couple of guesses.

[I go on here at some length about my guesses, but at the end of the post, I get to the point. If something like the Ronin Institute seems even vaguely appealing to you, send me an e-mail at jon@jonfwilkins.com, and let me know what is appealing and why. If you were to join the Ronin Institute, what would you hope to get from the affiliation?]

The thing about academia is that it requires a certain level of competence at / interest in a variety of activities. I think that most people who go to grad school do it with the idea that their life is career to be about scholarship and research. They usually know that, for most jobs, they will also be expected to teach, which is a plus for some people and a minus for others. These are certainly two of the most important things you do as an academic, but many professors will tell you that this is not what takes up the bulk of their time. Successful academics tend to spend a large fraction of time worrying about raising funding, through grants or donations. In the sciences, being a successful academic also requires being a competent manager, since most science is done in laboratories that include graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. And finally, for all academics, you have to be able to navigate the politics and bureaucracy of the university (national laboratory, pharmaceutical company, think tank, etc.).

I think it’s that last bit that is most surprising to people: the fact that your career depends so heavily on your ability to deal with deans and provosts, and to negotiate the (often quite poisonous) interpersonal dynamics of your department. I’ve known several people who are absolutely brilliant, but who have been marginalized in academia owing to their inability to play the politics game. I’m not talking here about the bullies or budding psychopaths who need to get flushed out. I’m talking about people who are kind, honest, and principled, but perhaps fail to recognize that, as they say, discretion is the better part of of valor. So they get crosswise with someone higher up in the academic power structure.

My other guess is that people are frustrated by the constraints of the academic treadmill. I think there are two aspects of this. The first is geographical. The fact is, if you are really committed to pursuing a traditional academic career, you have to go to where the job is. This is hard not only on two-career families, but on anyone with other geographical constraints on where they live. Maybe you have children and are divorced, or maybe you have a chronic illness and need the support of family, or maybe you just really love where you live.

The other constraint of the academic treadmill is temporal. This has been much written about, so I won’t belabor it here, but it is well known that a gap in your trajectory (due to, e.g., illness or having a kid) can derail your career in a way that can be difficult to recover from. Academic life is also constraining in that it tends to be an all-consuming job. Many academics feel that they don’t have time for outside interests. A few are good at cordoning off and protecting their personal time, but the fact is, it is rare to see university professors who have the time to coach their kid’s soccer team.

Now, there are certain realms of science (like high-energy physics or virology) that really require the infrastructure provided by a university (or university equivalent). However, there are many domains where an individual scholar can still make significant contributions. I’m thinking of most fields in the arts and humanities, as well as theoretical or mathematical work in any of the sciences. Even in those aspects of science that incorporate an experimental or field component, there is a lot that an independent researcher can do, particularly if they have collaborators who are at a university.

Basically, one of the things that I would like the Ronin Institute to be able to do is help all of those people who want to engage in research, but who are not in the standard academic track. What I need to know from you is this: what would you need? Send me e-mail at jon@jonfwilkins.com with your thoughts.

Keep in mind, I am not sitting on a big pot of money, and will not, at any time in the near future, be in a position to provide support in the form of funding. The sort of thing that the Ronin Institute could potentially provide would be more along the lines of an institutional address (for e-mail or for running grants through), and perhaps a community of like-minded independent scholars. What I would like to get is a sense — in as much detail as you can muster — of where you’re coming from, where you want to get to, and what specific things you think might help that a community of Ronin could provide. Also, if the Ronin Institute were to acquire a modest amount of funding in the future, what would be most helpful to you as an independent scholar (e.g., funds to pay page charges for publications, funds to pay for IRB review of proposed research, funds to pay travel to scientific meetings, etc.).

In case you’re wondering, “Does this apply to me?” let me give you some guidelines. Here is who should write in:

  • Academics who have left their university positions (by choice or not), but want to continue with their work.
  • Academics who are fed up with the university politics/bureaucracy, and are interested in investigating an alternative model for research.
  • Aspiring academics who have taken a hiatus in their training (by choice or not), and are trying to figure out how to return.
  • Aspiring academics who are looking at the academic job market and despairing, and want to think about alternative paths.
  • People who love research and scholarship, but who, because of personal constraints (or personal preference) can’t commit to the full-time academic lifestyle.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, but want to connect with independent scholars.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, and have thoughts about what they would find most lacking if they were to leave the university.

Also, if you know of anyone who might benefit from something like this, or might have ideas or suggestions, please forward this post to them.

Once I have a sense of what people are looking for, I’ll try to find the intersection of that with the set of things that I believe to be tractable in the short to medium-term future.

On Ronin and the Future

Welcome to the first semi-real post here at the Ronin Blog! I say semi-real because it is actually going to be the first in a series of reposts from Lost in Transcription. Basically, the things that I posted there about the Ronin Institute are going to be recycled here over the next few days. In a week or so, we’ll start rolling out new stuff.

This was originally posted on August 11, 2011, meaning that many of the things that were going to happen have happened already. So, you know, caveat lector.

So, for the past six years, I have been on the resident faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. As I am writing this, I am sitting at a laundromat in Santa Fe, preparing for a cross-country road trip to Montclair, New Jersey, where I am going to be founding my own research institute.

What does that mean? Well, technically speaking, I will be forming a non-profit dedicated to research. At least to start with, the non-profit will consist of me, so, practically speaking, it’s like I’m becoming a freelance scholar.

My new outfit will be called the Ronin Institute. Ronin refers to a masterless samurai. It may be familiar to you from this:

or maybe from this:

Since this is a career path that is a bit different from the one that most academics follow, I thought it might be interesting to write about it here. I’ll share some of the details of what is involved in establishing a non-profit, and the process of becoming an independent scholar. This is a new venture for me, one that is going to involve some trial and error. As I go along, I’ll let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Most of you are probably not going to start your own institutes (although I hope a few of you will), but many of you may be interested in thinking about alternatives to the archetypal academic career trajectory. I’m hoping that my experience will be helpful in thinking about your own plans.

Or maybe it will at least be comforting and entertaining to you in a schadenfreude kind of way.