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…

New seminar video on the philosophy, goals and values of the Ronin Institute

As we noted in a previous post, the Ronin Institute has started a YouTube channel  featuring videos from our seminar series. Recently Ronin Founder, Jon Wilkins, presented an in-depth overview of our principles and values in honor of the sixth anniversary of the founding of the Institute. It’s up now on YouTube:

You can also find more on our Mission and Why Ronin? pages.

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.

Ronin Institute launches YouTube channel

The Ronin Institute has launched its own YouTube channel!

We’re posting our videos from the Ronin Institute seminar series there. It also includes playlists of videos that feature Ronin Institute Research Scholars and their work, such as symposium panels, performances, TV or web interviews, as well as presentations at Ronin events such as Unconferences.

You can subscribe to our channel using the button below (if we reach more than 100 subscribers, we can get a slightly more snazzy URL handle like youtube.com/channel/RoninInstitute):

(If you’re a Ronin Research Scholar yourself, please send us links to existing YouTube videos that feature your work, or feel free to upload them and point us to the video).

Performance and collaboration: creating new scientific ecosystems at CESTEMER

The Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) was held at the Goodman Theater in downtown Chicago on September 15-17, 2017. Initiated by Raquell Holmes and improvscience in 2012, it brings together a diverse mixture of scientists, artists, humanists and performers to discuss and discover new ways of doing science in groups. I attended to share what we’ve been working on at the Ronin Institute, as well as gathering new ideas and strategies for the way forward. There are now many great venues and conferences for discussions on improving science communication, the value of creativity in our workplaces, or integrating the arts and humanities into STEM and education – CESTEMER was about all of those things, but with an added unique emphasis on group performance and play.

In addition to the regular talks, poster sessions, and keynotes, all conference attendees had opportunities to participate as performers through games and techniques drawn from theater and improv. This meant the conference was not the usual armchair experience – all conference attendees were co-creators of the performance that was the conference itself.  Why is this important? Performance is critical to group learning because of it’s “show, not tell” and experiential nature. To take just one example, the workshop run by Nancy Watt and Carolyn SealfonWhose Idea Is It Anyway?” tackled the ownership of ideas in science. Workshop participants grouped together to solve a physics problem and were asked to “play” different characters drawn from several personality types. By experimenting with different characters, we were able to experience how each group solved problems based upon their willingness to build on other’s ideas, embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, share credit and move the collaboration forward.

The intense competition to demonstrate individual “ownership” of an idea often prevails in the academic world (coupled with an artificial scarcity that is perpetuated by the journal prestige system amongst other things) can sometimes lead to an atmosphere of distrust. Therefore the direct experience of the value of empathetic collaboration to produce both better results, as well as unexpected and serendipitous discoveries, through such workshops, will become increasingly invaluable as a means for cultural change in our institutions. This bottom-up approach, coupled with more top-down changes in publications and funding incentives, will, I believe, lead to more durable cultural change than either alone. Plus it’s also a much more fun way of doing science!

I presented a short talk outlining how the Ronin Institute is aiming to foster new ways of thinking of the scientific enterprise as an “ecosystem” of peers. In this ecosystem, scientists collectively empower themselves to build scientific careers in whatever mode or style works for them in the context of the rest of their lives (whether this is in a university setting or elsewhere). I contrasted this ecosystem idea with the usual “pipeline” metaphor that conceives that pursuit of autonomous research requires following one of a set of fairly narrow career paths, controlled by a relatively small number of gatekeepers. I shared the concrete steps we have made in cultivating our own science communities, such as the face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference, the virtual meetings: the weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. You can see the slides here:

In summary, CESTEMER was a really fantastic opportunity to generate new “spores” in our evolving ecosystem of science and scholarship. I thank CESTEMER for inviting us, and I’m excited for the Ronin Institute to become part of this conversation. I look forward to all these spores travelling back to each of the participants’ everyday workplaces and spreading the message that we all do our best work when we listen and play together. I plan to attend the next CESTEMER conference in 2019 and I invite anyone interested to join me!

Independent Scholarship Survey

Research Scholars Arika Virapongse and Alex Lancaster have put together a survey designed to help us better understand how independent scholars “make it work.” We’ve already begun collecting responses from current Research Scholars, and the preliminary results look really interesting. We’re looking forward to sharing them once the results are in. We also want to open up the survey to anyone who has been doing independent scholarship and anyone pursuing a non-traditional academic career path. If that sounds like you, we would love to get your input on this. Or if you know someone who fits this description, please feel free to bring this to their attention. The survey can be accessed here.

The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. We know that your time is valuable, but we ask that you try to contribute as much detail as possible in your responses. Unfortunately, there is not a way to save your responses and complete the survey at a later date. For the option to work at your own pace, you can preview the questions here.

We are hoping that the information we collect will help us to develop new and better ways to support diverse models of scholarship and academic careers. And we would love for you to be a part of that.

Ranalli on Thoreau Tonight (October 11) in Acton, Mass

This evening (Wednesday, October 11, 2017), Research Scholar Brent Ranalli will be giving a talk at the Acton Memorial Library in Acton, Massachusetts on Henry David Thoreau’s “Indian Stride.” The talk starts at 7pm and is free. More information found here:

THOREAU’S “INDIAN STRIDE”   Local historian Brent Ranalli discusses Henry David Thoreau’s fascination with all things Native American and the odd fact that at least three contemporaries said the Concord philosopher walked like an Indian. Ranalli presents the results of research into the actual biomechanics of traditional Native American and Euro-American walking styles and their cultural significance, as well as a reconstruction of Thoreau’s own gait based on literary sources. Acton Memorial Library; free.