Open Letter on the Election, our Values, and our Community

I was putting together a letter to send out to the community of Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute. When it was done, though, it seemed like it might be relevant to other academic communities, as well. So, I thought I would share it here:

Greetings Ronin!

On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States. We won’t understand all of the consequences of that for some time. However, it seems unlikely to mean anything good for scholarship. There is good reason to worry that there will be negative impacts on funding, and it is possible that certain types of research could come under more directed attack. For some of you, there may be more personal and immediate dangers – things lower down on the Maslow hierarchy than publication expenses.

The Ronin Institute is a 501(c)3, meaning that we are specifically prohibited from lobbying for or against any candidate or piece of legislation, so we can’t, as an institution, take explicitly political positions. At the same time, we do have a certain set of values, values that are clearly at odds with much of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Given the way in which the violation of those values – and of many, many societal norms – has been mainstreamed and normalized in the media over the past several months, I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to our two cardinal values here.

The first value is truth. This is the core value of all scholarship. It means being careful and thorough in your research, and it means being clear and honest in your communication. It also means being open to the possibility of being wrong, and it means working every day to be less wrong. As we move further into what seems to be a post-truth period in politics, it is more important than ever for us to commit ourselves to uncovering truths and sharing them with the world.

The second value is empathy. That means treating each other with kindness and generosity, recognizing that other people may have goals and face challenges that are different from your own. And that entails a genuine commitment to diversity. No matter how much bigotry and harassment may become (further) normalized and (further) institutionalized in the coming months and years, they remain unacceptable here. And no, before you ask, valuing tolerance does not mean that we have to be tolerant of intolerance. If you think this sounds excessively naive or soft-headed or stereotypically liberal, this may not be the right community for you.

I’m not saying you have to be perfect in execution every time with these things. But you do have to be striving towards them in good faith.

Finally, I want to remind everyone that the Ronin Institute is a community, created specifically so that we can help each other to pursue our individual and collective goals. Normally, we think of this in the scholarly domain – exchanging intellectual ideas, or brainstorming solutions to problems like library access – but I want to encourage everyone to think also in the human domain. This election has brought an ugly part of our society out into the open, and for a lot of people, the country feels less safe than it did a few days ago. Unfortunately, given the incidents that have already occurred around the country, that feeling is probably accurate. The fact is that many people, particularly minority groups – both visible and invisible – are in a much more precarious position now.

I know that many of you don’t know each other, but here’s the thing: I have had at least some interaction with each of you, and we have a fantastic group of folks here. I don’t know what kinds of support people are going to need in the coming weeks, months, and years, but I do know that we have a lot of people who will do what they can to provide that support. So, if there is something that you or others in your community need, please ask. If there is something you can provide, please offer. This, by the way, would be a great use of that Slack account you’ve been ignoring!

Now let’s get to work!

Scientiam consecemus

Jon Wilkins
Ronin Institute

Thanks to All for a Fantastic Unconference

On Saturday, we held the first in a series of unconferences on The Future of Careers in Scholarship at The Democracy Center in Cambrdige, MA. It was a beautiful day, we had a great turnout, and the event was a fantastic success. In the coming days, we will be assembling a summary of the various discussions that took place in order to continue that conversation and expand it to an even broader community. So, keep an eye on this space for updates about this event and future events — maybe in your area!

In the meantime, we wanted to thank the various people who contributed to making the unconference a success.

First, and most importantly, we want to thank the participants. The success of an event in an unconference format depends on the energy and good-faith efforts of the attendees, who set the agenda and generate the content. Everyone who came prepared to both talk and listen, and the results were fantastic.

Second, we want to thank the three seed speakers, who started us off by throwing some ideas out to the larger group: Sonia Hall, Jessica Ehinger, and Raquell Holmes. All three were interesting, and, just as importantly, fun.

Third, we want to thank the Democracy Center for use of a great space in a perfect location.

Finally, we want to thank the sponsors, whose support allowed us to keep the event affordable:

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The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (http://www.kauffman.org)is a leader in the promotion and understanding of entrepreneurship. They are currently seeking a Research and Policy Director to lead an interdisciplinary research program focused on understanding the conditions that best support entrepreneurs and the policies that can foster those conditions. For more information, visit http://www.kauffman.org/who-we-are/careers-at-the-kauffman-foundation/research-and-policy-director.

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The Society of Professional Consultants (http://www.spconsultants.org) is an organization that helps individuals establish themselves as independent consultants and helps established consultants to maintain successful careers. They are also offering a free 60-day trial membership to attendees of the unconference.

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Ronin Institute Research Scholars Gordon Webster and Alex Lancaster are Partners at the consulting firm Amber Biology (http://www.amberbiology.com), working at the intersection of biology and computer science. Their new book is Python for the Life Sciences.

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Ronin Institute Research Scholar Anne Thessen is the principal of The Data Detektiv (http://datadetektiv.com), which specializes in custom data analysis and inference in the biological and geophysical domains.

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Research Scholar and Board Member Steven Orzack is the founder of the Fresh Pond Research Institute (http://freshpond.org), which served as one of the inspirational models for the Ronin Institute.

Better Know a Ronin: Micky von Dassow

Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who is interested in exploring how physics contributes to environmental effects on development and recently joined the Ronin Institute as a Research Scholar.  Here is a edited version of an interview I did with him from last year (full version).

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Mickey von Dassow

Can you describe your background?

My background is in biomechanics and developmental biology. My Ph.D. asked how feedback between form and function shapes marine invertebrate colonies. During my postdoc I worked on the physics of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos, specifically focusing on trying to understand how the embryo tolerates inherent and environmentally driven mechanical variability. Since then I have been independently investigating interactions among ecology, biomechanics, and development of marine invertebrate embryos, as well as teaching courses.

Tell us more about Independent Generation of Research (IGoR) ?

IGoR is a wiki for sharing research ideas, skills, and resources among novice, amateur, and professional scientists. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to do scientific research, regardless of how they make a living.  One of the main motivations was that I often need devices that are just beyond my own skills to make, but which hobbyists with other skills could easily help me make. This got me thinking that I could do more and better science if there was an easy way for me to build collaborations with amateurs who have different skill sets. I also realized I would have much more fun doing science if I had a way to keep doing it whether or not I get the next grant or research job. Amateurs, such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, or Grote Reber (the inventor of the radio telescope), used to be major contributors to scientific research. Today’s technologies should make it much easier for people to do science outside of a career, but we need ways to pool people’s talent and experience.

Where do you see “citizen science” going in the next 5 or 10 years?

I should say that IGoR is inspired by “citizen science,” but is a bit different from most citizen science. At the moment, most (but not all) citizen science seems to follow a model in which a few experts design a way to obtain a lot of data by getting many volunteers to do some low-skilled, repetitive task. However, there is a lot of interest in community-generated approaches (such as Public Lab, iNaturalist, OpenROV, and others), and approaches where there is real feedback between professionals and citizen scientists, involving creative and intellectual input from citizen scientists.

How does citizen science relate to the “open-science” movement?

As far as I can tell, the open-science movement seems to be focused mostly on open data and open publication models, but there are a lot of other strands to it. One strand that IGoR is definitely a part of is trying to move away from a status quo in which research is almost all done by people employed as researchers by big institutions. Open science, open source generally, citizen science, and the Maker/Hacker movement, all seem to be pushing against the divide between the professional and everyone else….

Are there particular kinds of research areas or projects that tend to fall through the cracks of traditional funding agencies (NSF, NIH etc.)?

Yes. Funding agencies and universities like high-tech science. If you use a big machine that goes ping to do it, you have a much higher chance of success than if you just need to watch something with your own eyeballs, even if the intellectual merit is the same or better. Funding agencies are also driven by fashion, so in biology anything “omics” is in, and organisms seem to be pretty much out for the moment. Finally, they are not good at funding brand new projects, or new or unknown researchers. For example, researchers often say you need to do the project before you can get funding for it, and then use the funding for the next step. This makes perfect sense: your best bet with limited money is the big lab, with lots of toys, piles of preliminary data, and oodles of publications to prove they can do the job. However, that makes it hard for new researchers, small labs, or people trying new directions. Cutting those researchers out reduces the diversity of research questions and perspectives.

My hypothesis for why “omics” and traditional model organisms dominate (even when there are better ones for particular problems) is positive feedback. If approach or field X is fashionable it will garner higher profile publications and more funding, so people doing X will have more opportunities, and other people will pay more attention to X, hence X seems even more exciting and an even better bet for funding or new hires. But, attention and funding are limited, so the more those go to X, the less they go to everything else. As I write this, it suggests that the answer is to make funding, and also publication visibility, a non-zero sum game. That gets back to finding new ways to support science, and to tell people about it, which encourage diversification of questions and approaches.

What kinds of changes in the institutional structures of science (e.g., peer review, publications, promotions etc.) would encourage more citizen science, open science or independent scholarship?

I think one of the biggest things that academic institutions could do is to teach students that independent scholarship is possible. There will never be enough funding for everyone who wants to do research (and is skilled at it) to make a living doing it. However, we all know that some of the deepest conceptual advances, notably Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution, came from people who were not employed as scientists. There are still many of important questions that can be addressed by an individual investigator on a shoestring budget.

So, if we value science (or scholarship generally), we need to create an environment in which research can be an avocation rather than a career. The most important parts of that are to make that choice socially acceptable within the scientific community, and to teach people – starting in undergrad and going through all career stages – how to make it work. There are many resources describing how to succeed in academia (or whatever other career one might choose); but, there are few, if any, guides to doing research successfully when one is not doing it for one’s job.

Are there other new models of doing research, outside of mainstream academic research institutions, that you have seen out there that inspire you?

Community labs are one that excites me a lot, and is an inspiration for IGoR. They could be great for getting novices, amateurs, and independent professionals working together to do substantive research; their main limitation is that they are few and far between. The Ronin Institute aims to create a more flexible approach to being an independent scholar, so that more professional-level scholars can do research. Even simple things like providing an institutional affiliation for applying for grants could be very helpful.

What’s your favourite organism?

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Ctenophore

Do I have to choose just one? Ctenophores might be it right now. The way they glide through the water with waves of iridescence running down bands of beating cilia, is incredibly beautiful. I love the fact that they coordinate a lot of their motion and sensation using interactions among cilia: a very different approach than most animals. They also have some very cool developmental features. For example, some of them can regenerate half or more of their body as adults, despite the fact that (for the most part) each embryonic cell forms a particular part of the body, and cannot be replaced when lost. There is a point in their development where they gain the ability to regenerate. However, I love lots of invertebrates, and I can’t look at ciliates without wondering why I don’t study them.

Read the full interview