The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat

Note: This is a guest post by Research Scholar Jose Luis Perez Vazquez, whose book, The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat, has just been published. Enjoy! — JFW

Through the years I have seen trainees wanting to perform research in academia only to abandon the idea due to what they perceive around them, due to what they sense will become of them after joining the professorial ranks. I have also met many lay people who were impressed, to say the least, by certain aspects of research in academia. Thus I decided to write a book on scientific research in our times to inform lay audiences and young trainees about the rise of a new type of scientist: the scientist bureaucrat (https://www.springer.com/in/book/9783030123253). It is a brief account of how the practice of science and its academic environment have been transformed due to current socio-economic circumstances.

There is no room here to go over the many details about this matter that are touched upon in the book, for the topics are many, from peer review to the publication game, passing through the funding tendencies and the assessment of scholars by institutions, things that all professional scholars know about (but perhaps not the young fellows and general populace). I have illustrated current shortcomings with some of my personal experiences … and a touch of humour. Suffice to say that today’s researchers are buried in bureaucracy and financial issues. The driving forces behind a scholar ?e.g. creativity, curiosity, motivation? are drowned in the monstrous sea of administration, corporatization of academia, and intense competition for funds and positions. In contrast to past generations, we “new scientists” are left with almost no time to dedicate to what we should be doing: research, creative work, experiments, data analysis. Now, principal investigators (PIs) have trainees and technicians doing all these things for them, whereas some PIs are so busy with administrative chores and searching for money to keep their laboratories going that barely step into their laboratory. This is one of the various paradoxes expounded in the text, for after all we were taught how to do good quality experiments, data analysis, in a word, research;  yet after joining the professorial ranks we change habits, now we research for funds, we “analyse” bureaucratic data.

But not all is about complaining, or rather, describing the reality as it is. I present too in the book sections on possible solutions to circumvent some of the aspects that prevent us from doing what we (or at least most of us) really like: real research. While most of the solutions are just specific workarounds to overcome certain things (that, again, professional scientists know about but may be informative to trainees), I wanted as well to propose some general solutions to, at least in part, go back to what true scholarship is. It perhaps should be acknowledged that the current state was inevitable; it had to happen because science is immersed in society, and modern society is governed by financial concerns and bureaucracy. If I were to point out a central theme that brought about the current status quo, it could be the result of the current global economic situation which together with the spread of administration and the deep involvement of politicians into the fabric of academia is deviating scholarship from what once was. But there may be still time to revert.

To me, the main cause of trouble we face today is lack of balance that pervades many aspects of research. Imbalance in funding big groups versus the individual scientist (somehow in these days funding agencies prefer to award grants to big groups, in spite of the fact that it is the individual scientist the driving force behind research and that putting many heads together does not equal to better scientific outcome); disparity in funds for infrastructure versus operating research; inequality in the scientists’ time dedicated for administrative work versus real research in the laboratory; disproportion, inequity in the appraisal of research favouring the administrative and lucrative outcomes over work done in the laboratory … It is my opinion that the general situation in academia and science in particular would be greatly improved if an equilibrium was found in these aspects: a fairer distribution of resources between big groups and individual researchers, between hypothesis-driven and question-driven projects, between utilitarian and holistic grant proposals, a balanced evaluation of scholars considering work in the laboratory and administration. Because the problem is not that some administration has to be carried out ?I don’t think anybody would complain if some bureaucracy occupied a little of our time? but the problem is that these activities occupy most of our time as scientists, and we have little left for what we really like: to think, to reflect on questions, perform experiments, analyse data, and interpret results.

In the text I mention what perhaps is the most intriguing situation, the most paradoxical of all. While the majority of researchers disagree about what academia has become, we scientists proceed doing things as though we did not notice. If almost all of us realise the present condition, why don’t we change it? Some reasons have been advanced, for instance in Eliane Glaser’s article “Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?” (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/bureaucracy-why-wont-scholars-break-their-paper-chains/2020256.article). But I am not sure why. Inertia comes to mind, perchance herd mentality. To some extent one has the impression that we behave as if we did not know, or decided to ignore the situation. It has been my experience that one day I discuss matters with a colleague about the folly of impact factors or any other aspect, both of us voicing our disapproval, and yet, a few days later I meet my colleague in the hall and starts telling me with great enthusiasm that they have a paper accepted in this or that journal of very high impact factor…

Nonetheless, things appear to be changing thanks to initiatives talked about in the book like the Bratislava Declaration, the Leiden Manifesto, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and others. These provide reasons to be optimistic, but it will take time, and most likely I won’t see it, but I think some aspects will revert to what academia once was.

One action that I think is fundamental to solve the current situation has been in fact alluded in the aforementioned Glaser’s article: “Ultimately, resistance is impossible without collective solidarity.” I agree, it is in the collective realisation, agreement, and behaviour where the real possible solution stands. Politicians and bureaucrats may have the money and resources but in the end are we, scholars, performing these tasks of, say, using impact factors or numbers of publications to judge colleagues and institutions or to award grants. Imagine all scientists, simultaneously, refused to use these metrics. What are the policy-makers going to do? They cannot evaluate grant proposals or papers, or scholars applying for promotions; they don’t have the knowledge.  But if only a few decide not to comply with the bureaucrats’ commands, then it will be futile, for other, more compliant, academics will be found and ask to perform those duties. Hence, in the final analysis, it all depends on us scientists.

Better Know a Ronin: Rebecca Willén / Fellow Travelers IGDORE

Welcome back to our very occasional “Better Know a Ronin” series, where we learn more about the journeys of our Research Scholars and their current projects. It’s also doubling as the first post in a new “Fellow Travelers” series, conversations with the different organizations which share some common goals, approaches or philosophy with the Ronin Institute. In late 2018, I talked to the founder of one such traveler, Dr. Rebecca Willén, the founder of IGDORE, also a Research Scholar with Ronin. Rebecca has a PhD in psychology from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden in which her main focus was on deception detection and development of interrogation techniques. After finishing her PhD in 2016 she has since focused on metascience – science about science.

Rebecca Willén

In this interview, we start by discussing the motivations for founding IGDORE, how education fits into IGDORE’s mission, and discuss what “New Academia” is all about. We next talk about the importance of retroactive disclosure statements for transparency in science. We finish on the topics of co-working spaces, changing academic cultures and the future. [This is a edited version of our conversation. Full disclosure: I am an affiliated researcher with IGDORE].

Tell me a bit about IGDORE?

IGDORE stands for the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. It’s an independent institute I founded in 2016, directly after I had finished my PhD.  It’s a virtual research institute, just like Ronin. We have one non-virtual facility and that is on Bali in Indonesia.

What motivated you to start IGDORE?

There were mainly two reasons why I started IGDORE.

First of all I finished my PhD remotely. I lived the last year of my PhD, I lived in Canada and in Indonesia.  I was just working from co-working spaces, from home, from cafes. And that’s how I finished my PhD. I only went to Sweden for my actual defense. And when I started to look for jobs, just before I finished my PhD, and during the Spring of 2016, I found it difficult to find a place where I felt that, “I want to go there with my family and live there”.

I did a job interview in the UK, and when I and visited the university, I felt that, “is this really where I’m supposed to live with my family, we have no connection with this country or that town?”.  It didn’t feel right, because we were quite happy with the life we had, and it is also relevant here, that the father of my daughter – we are not a couple any longer – so it makes it more difficult to expect someone to come to a new location when you are not even a couple. So for that reason, that was one of the reasons why I started IGDORE – because I wanted to do research from wherever I was.

“I didn’t want to end up… [experiencing]…the same pressure to publish and to get the low enough p-values to get something published. I wanted to be free to do good science, and to do it from wherever I wanted to reside at the moment”

And the second reason was that during the years that I was at my university as a student, I had lost my faith in science.  Because there were a lot of questionable research practices being employed and I had struggled with that, and I struggled to change that from within, and failed. And I didn’t want to end up in a new such situation where I’m doing a postdoc or something at a new university and again experience same the pressure to publish and to get the low enough p-values to get something published. I wanted to be free to do good science, and to do it from wherever I wanted to reside at the moment.

How are the scientists at IGDORE funded? What’s the current funding model?

We have several of the people are affiliated with traditional universities so they have receive the salaries from there. Several of them are preparing, they want to become location-independent for different reasons and want to move away from traditional academia. But are right now standing with one foot in each. IGDORE is not offering any funding.

How is IGDORE set up legally?

In Indonesia we are non-for-profit. In Sweden, we are a limited company.  The plan is to become a non-for-profit too. It’s easy to do, but we haven’t done it yet.

So some of the individual scientists at IGDORE have positions, and some of them are freelancers. How do you specifically get your funding, at the moment?

I get my money from seed money from IGDORE.  I’m basically living on a minimum.

So Bali can be helpful for that, I imagine?

Bali came before I finished my PhD. No, but living in Bali, makes it possible for me to live on the money I have for a long-time.

Right, the cost of living is probably much lower than in Sweden?

Yes.

IGDORE and online education

Forensic psychology conference at IGDORE February, 2019

In the future for IGDORE, are you thinking something more like Ronin where it facilitates but doesn’t necessarily provide salaries. Or are you thinking that IGDORE would provide some of that centrally?

I haven’t given it too much thought yet.  I want IGDORE to start offering online education, and if we get that going, then there might be the possibility to hire someone. To be able to pay proper salaries to a bunch of researchers.  Because I think education will be the main thing that is needed if you want to be able to pay salaries to researchers.

And that’s the “E” in IGDORE?

Exactly.

Where do you see IGDORE evolving the future?

The long-term plan for IGDORE is to become a proper university.  A location-independent university. I hope we will have co-working spaces, and laboratories in different parts of the world.  And then if people are working for, or studying at IGDORE, then it doesn’t matter where in the world they are, they can be at home, they can choose to go to their nearest campus, co-working space or laboratory.  But the long-term plan is to become a full non-formal university.

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin: Rebecca Willén / Fellow Travelers IGDORE

What do our scholars know? Find out at Blogs of the Ronin

Almost since the beginning of the Ronin Institute we had – what used to be called back in the aughts – a “blogroll” – of all Research Scholar blogs.   As part of last year’s site refresh – the “Blogs of the Ronin” are now properly displayed sidebars.   We also have a new dedicated page – Scholar Blogs –  displaying the most recent post from each blog (those that have an RSS feed).    Go and check them out!


If you’re a Ronin Scholar and have a blog that you would like to have listed, please contact us with the link to the blog, and RSS feed, so we can add you to the aggregation. (Conversely, if you are currently listed and would like to be removed, also let us know).  Ideally the blog would contain a good number of posts related to your scholarly interests, but this is by no means a requirement: a blog that mixes personal and research interests is also fine.  If you have several blogs, probably choose the one with the most scholarly-related content.  It’s may also be possible to filter and only aggregate posts within a certain category, let us know if you would like to do that.

Michele Battle-Fisher presents at the Boston Book Festival

Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher was at the Boston Book Festival at MIT Press’ “Pitchfest” on October 13, talking about cyborgs, CRISPR and body hacking.  She was presenting her book proposal on the transhumanism movement, associated with the documentary on the same that she is co-producing.  Lucky for those who weren’t able to be in Boston, you can see her talk on YouTube here:

The Ronin Institute at Performing the World in NYC

Performing the World (PTW) is a biennial conference with a focus on building communities, social change and performance. This year it is being held in New York City on September 21-23. Here’s the description from the conference website:

Since the first PTW in 2001, the conference has been a gathering place to explore and celebrate performance as a catalyst for human and community development and culture change. PTW is now a global community of hundreds who creatively engage social problems, educate, heal, organize and activate individuals, organizations and communities, and bring new social-cultural-psychological and political possibilities into existence.

Building on the conversations started in the related CESTEMER meeting  last year, several Ronin Institute Research Scholars will be holding a session “Performing New Models of Scholarship at the Ronin Institute” at 5:15pm on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be joining Research Scholars  Kristina Baines, Victoria Costa, (Kristina and Victoria are also co-founders of the Cool Anthropology collective), Jocelyn Scheirer, and Jon Wilkins. They will be giving short presentations on their different projects and how they feed into new models of doing research in their fields and beyond. The panel after will invite the wider PTW community to collectively explore a better future for scholarship.

If you’re in the NYC area and interested in attending, come join us! I believe it’s not too late to register. Let us know if you do!

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.