Ronin Institute Principle: Pay it Forward

This series of blog posts introduces some of the guiding principles that we use at the Ronin Institute to help the community be its best.

We build long-term sustainability into the Ronin Institute by planning our activities and their maintenance so that they can be done as easily as possible by us, and with the least amount of everything (bureaucracy, infrastructure, work, outside expertise etc). We try to keep things simple, while focusing our energy on creating the right structures that people can work within on their own. With this strategy, community volunteers can easily step into discrete roles, and channel their good will to help out in small ways–without the burden of trying to figure out how to do it.

Our Pay it Forward principle is based on creating a chain reaction of good will. After “seeding” a new initiative (e.g., helping support a community member’s activity), we hope that the member(s) who benefits will consider paying it forward to the next Ronin Research Scholar who could also benefit. Here are some examples of how this works: 

  • A Scholar has given a seminar at Ronin => In the future, they volunteer as a seminar host
  • A Scholar has had a great experience at one of our events => They help plan a future event
  • A Scholar got some useful feedback on their research proposal => In the future, they give feedback on someone else’s proposal
  • A Scholar has been featured in a Ronin Institute blog post or in our Newsletter => In the future, they contribute some writing or social media posts in Ronin Institute spaces to help highlight other Scholars

In this way, heavy loads become a lot lighter and we all benefit, while also building and strengthening our community along the way. 

Ronin Public Seminar: Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: What is Linguistic Simplicity?

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Keith Tse, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: Nov 6, 2020 at 12:00 PM US Eastern Time / 16:00 UTC (local time)(add to your calendar)
Hosted by: Varsha Dani, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Abstract. Modern linguistic theory goes one step further than standard scientific conventions of formal simplicity (‘Occam’s Razor’) in denoting the simplest formalisations for language structures not only for theory-internal reasons but also for empirical reasons (Martin and Uriagereka (2000)), since it has been established human infants acquire their first language at such an exceptionally high rate that, in accordance with Plato’s Problem, there may be an innate component in the human mind which is species-specific and genetically designed for human language. This is Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG), and formal metrics of ‘simplicity’ are a hot topic in contemporary syntactic debates as numerous definitions have been proposed throughout the development of Chomskyan models of language whose latest version known as the Minimalist Program (MP) (Chomsky (1995)) provides a backdrop to language variation and change. While assumptions such as Plato’s Problem and formal simplicity are widely agreed upon, consensus with regards to technical details remains elusive, since Chomsky (2004) radically revises his earliest definitions of formal simplicity (Chomsky (1995, 2000, 2001)) which has given rise to lively debates in modern syntactic theory. This presentation critically examines the history and evolution of modern syntactic theory from a Chomskyan perspective and compares the various principles of ‘simplicity’ proposed which drives us to the conclusion that extraneous elements in language may indeed be eliminated in favour of the simplest structures.

Ronin Public Seminar: Messaging Matters: A Checklist to Enhance Buy-in for Your Ideas

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Thomas J. Buckholtz, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: October 23 at 2:00 PM ET/ 6:00 PM GMT (local time)(add event to your calendar)
Hosted by: Vesselin Gueorguiev, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary: Gain a checklist and perspective to use when marketing your endeavors to would-be clientele, colleagues, funders, or other entities. Consider using the checklist for many other activities throughout your life. I developed this and some other checklists, based on perspective from a diverse career. (I have worked with large and small enterprises in aerospace, agricultural research, biotech, business services, computing, defense, education, energy utilities, government, healthcare, high technology, innovation, insurance, Internet, law enforcement, politics, research and development, telecommunications, and venture capital. One role included leading a 2,000-person business unit.) The checklists are broadly applicable, semi-rigorous, and hopefully not overly prescriptive.

Here’s a preview into the seminar:

If you’d like to get ahead of the curve, you can take a look at the recorded presentation (below) ahead of time and be ready with your questions & discussion points at the seminar.

Ronin Institute Working Groups vs Interest Groups: What’s the Difference?

Working Groups (WG) focus on key elements of the Ronin Institute. They are an important part of the Governance structure for our Institute, because they offer one way (but not the only way!) for Ronin Research Scholars to participate in the running of the Institute (part of our “Everybody drives a truck” philosophy). Each WG has a lead, who also participates in the Ronin Institute Advisory Board. WGs meet once a month, and are open to all Ronin Institute Research Scholars. 

Our WGs and the current leads: 

Interest Groups (IG) are self-organized groups of Scholars that focus on specific topics. Their goal is to stimulate discussion and enhance collaboration. The general idea behind IGs is to convene Scholars in organized groups–much like departments in a conventional university, but much more fluid and community-based. Sub-groups within IGs could also form around specific projects and goals (e.g., leading a seminar or writing a paper). In particular, we welcome IGs that address cross-disciplinary topics (e.g., storms, sustainability). Currently, our IGs have a presence on our Slack workspace through specific channels (using the prefix “IG-” in the channel name), and are only open to Ronin Institute Research Scholars. Some IGs also meet weekly on Remo, which is a platform that allows participants to easily move around to different discussions. 

These are our current IGs, their scope, and the contact/lead: 

[Illustration by Karolin Schnoor]

Ronin Public Seminar: COVID19 and Cutting Edge Technologies You Can Deploy from Home Yourself!

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Vesselin Gueorguiev

Date/time: September 25 at 1:00 pm US ET/ 5:00 PM GMT (local time)(add to your calendar)

Summary: Have you considered using a Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools to understand COVID19? How about a chatbot that can answer some of your friends’ questions about COVID19? Do you think that applications for a Quantum Computer are too far in the future? You can access and play with all these cutting edge technology tools today! In this talk, freely available resources will be used to demonstrate the utilization of all these cutting edge technologies to understand and inform the public about COVID19. The speaker will demo a Slack and Facebook integrated ChatBot that can answer questions about COVID19, a focused NLP and NLU COVID19 based search collection, and finally a quantum computer GDP-sick people optimization for informed reopening decisions.

Ronin Public Seminar: Foundations & Examples for how to tackle (Geo)ethical Dilemmas

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

PresenterMartin Bohle

Date/time: September 16 at 10:00 AM US ET / 2:00 PM GMT (in your local time) (add event to your calendar)

Summary: This essay is about less-than-satisfying circumstances, and imperfect solutions. To that end it presents some theory, experiences and examples for how to tackle ‘geoethical dilemmas’. Geosciences co-shape the human niche, that is, the planetary network of twinned natural and cultural landscapes. Bundled by global supply chains, humans restlessly alter it through engineering, production and consumption. In turn, human agents face counter-intuitive system-behaviour, irreversible path-dependency, and multi-facet values and interests, including ‘ethical dilemmas’. 

Facing such premises, geoethics explores cultural substrates to nurture the skills of agents when facing suchlike ‘wicked’ system-features. Initially, geoethics was conceived for geoscientists, that is, their professional functions in various societal contexts. Subsequently, geoethics evolved into an epistemic, moral hybrid for citizens interacting with the Earth system. Geoethics amended by Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral adequacy and Jonas’s imperative of responsibility results in a ‘geoethical rational’, namely, to act: ‘actor-centric, virtue-ethics focused, responsibility focused, knowledge-based, all-actor-inclusive, and universal-rights based’. Less-than-perfect guidance, such as the geoethical rational offers, can support agents to navigate the human niche, that is coping with ‘ethical dilemmas’.

Re-visiting Our Goals at the Ronin Institute

At the Ronin Institute, we’ve been thinking a lot about our institutional purpose, and how we can make sure that we stay on track. Here are some things that we try to keep in mind: 

Our Vision

The Ronin Institute is reinventing academia, but without the academy.

The key word there is “reinventing”. It’s actually harder than you might think to try to stay out of the same rut that the conventional academy has taught us is the norm. We remind ourselves constantly that “that’s how others do it” is not good enough. 

Our Mission

To create a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship. We want anyone who is interested in pursuing high-quality scholarly research to be able to do so. Moreover, we want these people to be able to pursue their research in a way that is consistent with all of their life’s priorities.

Our mission highlights equity in scholarship (for more on this, read Jon’s blog post from 2012). This is where it gets tricky in regards to “staying on track”. There are no easy solutions here–not least of all because so many sectors in our society fail tremendously at this. Some specific ways that we’ve been trying to tackle this at Ronin include our: Code of Conduct, volunteer leadership approach, membership model, and virtual infrastructure plan. The equity question really does permeate every major decision we make at Ronin. Rather than aiming for equity as a destination, we seek to embed it within the Institute. Ronin Research Scholars can help us all stay the course by sharing their diverse perspectives and challenging our (own) world views. 

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Michele Battle-Fisher

Welcome back to our occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the research and other activities of our Research Scholars. Earlier this month, I talked to Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher (pronoun: she/her). Michele’s interdisciplinary research spans public health, complex systems and bioethics. Michele wears many hats. In addition to being a scholar at the Ronin Institute, she is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in Ohio, a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science, and the author of Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics. She was a TEDxDartmouth speaker and a participant in the MIT Press Pitchfest.

Welcome Michele!  2020 has been a bit of a doozy of a year thus far. How are you holding up?

Thanks for having me today. This is kind of cataclysmic for me. Between Black Lives Matter and COVID, I’m kind of in overload. But I think it also brings to the point why I do the work that I do in public health: looking at the ethics and complexity of health care systems. So right now, the ethics are: “why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?” We have an ethical issue of where we’re allocating our money–whether it needs to be on the clinical end or it needs to be on the preventative end. In addition, public health does well in expressing the overarching social determinants that make staying healthy individually and as a population overwhelmingly difficult. Yet, public health continues that fight. As a true Ronin, I use a new angle to add to the social complexity afoot.

Why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?

COVID-19 is showing that we act in–at least in the United States–very much from a reactionary position. We deal with our problems when they happen. With this pandemic, I hope we will have a larger discussion of the pre-existing health disparities of people of color, LGBTQ, plus disability. The list could go on and on. It illuminates the holes we have in society and how some of us are falling into those holes. And they’re not throwing a rope in order for us to get us out of that well. So I really dedicate myself to that work and I hope that it’s doing some good.

You published your book, the Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics by Springer back in 2016. It seems to have even more relevance now that public health is front and center.  Is there more interest in that scholarship?

In 2012, I took part in a research program with the National Institutes of Health, it was called ISSH (Institute on Systems Science and Health), that brought together 45 competitively selected  researchers in the areas of agent based modelling, social networks and system dynamics. I reaffirmed my love for systems there. 

I started writing the book back in 2015.  And it started out from a blog that I had run for about two years previously – called Orgcomplexity.  I started trying to connect this whole idea of systems thinking, which came from general systems theory and systems biology – and also the world of physics with chaos and emergence and attractors. I worked very publicly through those ideas, which to some may be foolish because I was doing something that wasn’t within the norm. I was able to actually work out ideas, have people react to my ideas and work on this framework.  

Is a systems approach always the best approach to public health?

Yes and no: it may surprise some who say: “well, isn’t everything complex?” And do we always look at it from that complex lens? We don’t always do that because it also depends on the question you’re asking. Some questions are best answered from a very linear reductionist standpoint: biostatistics measures for example. Those methods are appropriate for those questions. I am just asking that if the question is divergent in nature that we do not jump to using convergent solutions. We are all susceptible to mental models which is the first step for making sense of our world. Ecological framing is not new to public health and explains well the nested, concentric elements that make up health as we live it. Systems thinking calls us to rely on a more dynamic, time-based understanding of nested interdependent elemental systems when appropriate.   

Why did you write a book, rather than publishing journal articles?

I chose not to do journal articles, because number one, I couldn’t get past the reviewers. Because they said: “well, we had other methods and those work, so why do something new?” And then because I wasn’t doing strictly analytical work, that would just get lost by the next journal article. I wanted there to be some type of salience, the ability for me to have a bigger footprint over a longer period of time. So I thought, “Okay, let’s be foolish and write a book”. And so that’s what I did. The second thing was that I was selected as a scholar at a place called the Hastings Center, which is located just north of New York City. And I was brought there as a specialist, as a visiting scholar. And I brought this really kooky idea saying that ethics are complex and they’re like “that is new”. And they just let me do it. That was the first time I felt freedom to actually push the envelope and try to do something that wasn’t expected. 

Were there others working with this perspective?

I don’t want to say that there was nobody else in ethics doing this, but it wasn’t apparent to me that there was a large cluster who were using this perspective.  Sometimes in academia, people follow each other like sheep. And I just decided to be a cow and not a sheep: I’m chewing cud and they’re just following each other – being herded. But in all fairness, I’m still in the academic world and to be published to have any success in that field. I certainly see the worth and the need for academia, but I also know that academics can be very smothering at times. Innovation is not something that they take to readily. So taking different perspectives just takes time, effort and patience. When you’re going up for tenure, there’s little room or time to be innovative. But I love what I do. I really cannot see myself doing anything else. 

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Measuring the right one thing

By Ronin Research Scholar Emily Lankau. This first appeared in July 2020 on LinkedIn.

City Slickers was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It was released during 1991 when I was just on the brink of adolescence. For some odd reason, the story resonated with me then and still does today.

The movie tells the story of Mitch Robbins, a burned-out businessman who gets dragged along on a cattle drive through the southwestern US. At the start of the film, Mitch is going through a premature mid-life crisis at 38 years old.

Mitch manages to befriend the crotchety old cowpoke, Curly, who is leading the sorry expedition of “city slickers”. Riding along on horseback, Curly and Mitch have a deep conversation about the individual choices we make as we try to make sense of our lives.

Curly holds up his index finger and says to Mitch “The secret of life is this. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

“What’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.

“That’s what you gotta figure out.” Curly replies.

Mitch spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what that one thing is. He eventually becomes a pretty decent cowboy and certainly a better man.


A few months ago, I was considering leaving a traditional job with benefits to return to full-time consulting – possibly as a long-term career decision or maybe as a shorter-term place to land to sort some things out. Either way, there were some really good reasons to go; there were also some good reasons to stay.

While contemplating this decision, this scene from City Slickers got stuck in my head. Ruminating on this scene then led me back to another favorite, a book that I read in a freshman literature class during college – Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.

It all seemed a little random, but the subconscious makes interesting connections sometimes. How is a 90’s Billy Crystal comedy related to an early 20th century philosophical novel? It’s like the set up to a bad joke.

But it turns out that the connection is simple – both offer lessons about how we find and define meaning in life. Both meant something to me as I navigated previous transitions in my life and now were converging as I navigated the current one.

The meaning of life is a common theme in art for good reason – it is the central thing we all grapple with from cradle to grave.

What is my purpose? How can I leave something of value behind in the world?

Work, what we do to earn a living, can be central to answering these questions.

Steeped in careerism throughout my academic education, work and career success had become a load-bearing beam of my self-worth. So much so, that I became paralyzed in a work situation that was not healthy for me or for my family.

For the longest time, I couldn’t make the decision to leave because the job and the mission I served in that role had become central to my identity in a way that made it impossible to walk away unscathed.

I stayed too long in a situation that, for reasons that were beyond my control, simply wasn’t for me. I had worked so hard to get there, and I could not accept that it was not what I wanted it to be, that it was damaging me.

My career has been decidedly non-linear because I am the spouse of a tenure-track professor. Like the tail of a comet, I have trailed behind my partner, simultaneously propelled forward and constrained by the trajectory and momentum of his success. I have watched opportunities pass by – green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach due to the orbital velocity that takes me near, but never quite to, a destination that I would choose if I were free to chart my own course.

I am highly trained in a relatively specialized field where job openings are rare and competitive. Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone finds a stable place at the table. Without geographic mobility, the odds of successfully landing one of these prized opportunities are negligible.

I have had to learn to translate and transfer my skills and training into areas far outside of my original career goals for the sake of my family. I have turned myself into a pretzel, time and time again, to fit the available jobs that happen to coincide with our physical location. I have learned to serve and to love the missions that are available to me, to embrace them as my own, even as I mourn the missions I cannot access.

It has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but these contortions have also taught me a remarkable agility and open-mindedness that makes me an asset to clients who are looking for new insights on their systems. I bring a rather unique, outsider’s perspective to nearly everything I do.

Measuring and managing performance is one of the services I offer as a consultant. Because I am the daughter of my remarkably efficient mother, I am innately good at making processes work more smoothly and defining how to measure those improvements. I have had some formal training in program evaluation and performance management to compliment this aptitude. It is a powerful skill to have.

And despite this talent for helping others fix problems and document successes, I have failed to find a satisfying way to steer and mark my own career progress as a trailing spouse. I have walked a Seussean path, all the while celebrating my partner and friends as they make clear, measurable strides forward in their own careers. Perpetually unable to see beyond the next bend in the road, I have often wondered if I am going anywhere at all.

During March, my career had hit an impasse. Nothing was working. I felt stuck. So, I did what I would recommend to a client whose program was not having the effects that they intended. I stood at a white board and drew a massive logic model of my life.

Then I stepped back and stared at it for a while, hoping a pattern would emerge that would point the way forward. I squinted and blinked, trying to find the right plane of focus where the magic eye picture suddenly emerges from the noisy cacophony of colors and shapes.

If a client hired me to do a program evaluation of me, how would we measure success?

What are the right performance metrics for measuring the meaning in one’s life and career?

What’s the one thing?


“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisco is a painter who struggles with fear of failure and procrastination. She has great aspirations, yet doubts her abilities. She sees painting as a way to create a bulwark against the chaos of passing time and the detachment of the human experience.

Lily seeks to capture reality on her canvas to “make of the moment something permanent”. She wants to create something tangible to leave in the world. Lily finds meaning in producing something of value, in the identity of being a painter.

Lily spends the whole book trying to find the just-right way to start a painting. Lily is afraid to begin because a wrong decision at the start could spell disaster: “At what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions… Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

I read To the Lighthouse for the first time on the brink of adulthood. I identified with Lily. Not knowing where to begin, I chased what others ordained as markers of a productive scientific life: publications, presentations, book chapters, reports, awards, job titles.

Young scientists are generally taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that their publication counts, journal impact factors, citation indices, and academic titles are concrete measures of their worth. All you have to do to be successful is jump over the bar; publish enough, get tenure.

Young scientists are rarely told that the publish-enough bar is comparative; success in academia is graded on an ever-rising curve and only a small percentage of doctoral-degree holders achieve tenure. Clearing the perpetually-moving bar is an unattainable goal for many scientists and there is no shame in that. The deck is stacked.

Now, nearing 40, staring at the bizarre logic model of my life, I noticed that the concrete products of my scientific efforts were notably absent. The missions I had served and the values that brought me to those missions were there, but the papers, presentations, and job titles held were not. That I had forgotten to list them seemed to mean something.

I realized that this white board was my version of going on a cattle drive. I was having an early mid-life crisis. That realization made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes.


“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

Mrs. Ramsey, another central character in the novel, offers a very different solution to finding meaning in a world of impermanence. “Life stand still here,” she said, knowing the whole time that the stockings would always be too short and the children always growing older. Mrs. Ramsay finds meaning in the moments that pass between people, in relationships.

When Mrs. Ramsey throws a dinner party, she looks around and sees that human connection does not happen spontaneously. It takes effort. Someone has to begin. “Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her… for if she did not do it nobody would do it.”

Mrs. Ramsey knew how to make of the moment something permanent. All it takes is the courage to risk all happiness on the success of a single small interaction. Like a painter facing a blank canvas, Mrs. Ramsey looks at her dinner party gathering and then makes a sweeping brush stroke, a beginning, an attempt. She encourages others to be open, to connect, and to find meaning in the smallest things, like having a meal together.

When I was 18, I dismissed Mrs. Ramsey’s answer. Finding meaning in relationships felt too domestic, too stereotypically feminine to be the right way to navigate in a world that was and is still quite dominated by male standards of success. There is no resume section for documenting how nice you are*. Kindness does not get you a tenure-track or executive-level job. Those, I had been taught, were decided on cut-throat productivity.

But nearing 40, I realized that I would be solidly identified as a “Mrs. Ramsey” if Buzzfeed ever did a “Which character from To the Lighthouse are you?” quiz. I felt so daft when I finally figured out something that should have been so obvious.

Every career decision I have ever made was about my family, the people I work with, and the missions I serve. I have never made a decision based on salary, productivity, or clout.

Some of my career choices have involved sacrificing all three of the latter at the same time to make space for the former. To have the security to be able to consistently choose based on these values has been a privilege afforded to me by my partner’s success – the thing that holds me back has also, in some ways, liberated me.

Trailing along on my partner’s orbit, I have struggled to feel like I have fully “arrived” in my career for years. We decided together, for very practical reasons, to prioritize his job. I am innately more flexible in my ambitions, so it seemed like the right choice when we made it. I fully own the decisions that have made my career challenging – they are not his to feel guilty about, although he does some days.

I wish I never had to make a choice between a fulfilling job in my area of expertise or my family. I do not, however, regret putting them first.

Staring at the white board, lightning struck, and I realized that I did not feel out of sync because I was making bad decisions, but rather because I was measuring my performance with the wrong metrics. Then I wrote a list down the left side of the diagram – the name of every person who I have ever taught, mentored, supported, opened doors for, or defended against injustice during my career. Often, none of this was in my actual job description at the time. Sometimes, I have even stepped out in front of others with little regard to my own safety and I have borne the consequence of those choices willingly. For if I did not do it, it was possible that nobody would.

Being available to my family and giving other people a leg up on their own journeys – these are things that I have always prioritized over publishing papers or making my own next big career move. Those decisions have shaped my life in so many ways that I failed to take note of because they were not on the list of performance metrics that I was taught to value.

Because their successes are their own, not mine, I had not thought to include all of these people on my own logic model. Yet, I was there to cheer them on, witness their tears and frustration, or protect them when they needed a shield. As they each ran their own races, I was one of the people manning a water table along their marathon routes.

Passing out proverbial cups of water isn’t a contribution that can be quantified or listed on a resume, yet each person on this list is a living measure of my career success.

Trapped by an unfair choice in the tail of a comet, I have found small ways to use the stability and privilege of my partner’s orbit as traction for pushing others towards those green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach. And I am so proud of each of them and their successes, especially the ones who now work in the jobs I dreamed about during graduate school.

It was only then, with that list of names added to the messy diagram of my life, that I could see the pattern in the noise. Only then, did I fully realize how I should always have been measuring success in my own career all along.

This is the one thing. My one thing. The thing that has always been there as the measure of meaning in my life, even when I failed to see it.

*Note that this sentence is not strictly true. There is actually one line on my resume that is entirely about being nice. It is the scientific equivalent of being awarded the title of Miss Congeniality and I cherish that award more than anything else.

The value of independent scholarship in a time of upheaval

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter.  It first appeared as an editorial in the June 2020 issue of Kitsune

“We know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.”

Our lives and institutions have been radically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. This applies too, to scholarly institutions. The consequences for both individual scholars and the systems of academia are likely to be far-reaching. From my perspective as a US-based, early career scientist, I share some observations and reflect on the value of independent scholarship to the scholarly community, particularly at a time when the pandemic is straining traditional academic careers and institutions.

One source of insight into impacts of the pandemic is its effect on the livelihoods and careers of scholars. As an early-career scientist I’m especially attuned to the job market for new hires. This year, 2020, and likely beyond, will feature a horrible academic job market. This spring, colleges and universities froze hiring while many faculty searches were incomplete; those positions remain unfilled and their long-term fate in limbo. As long as student revenue, endowments, and state budgets are depressed, faculty hiring will be scant. New hiring won’t be all that’s affected. My tenure-track colleagues are concerned about lost productivity and inequities in who can still do research at a time when children are home, and while labs and field sites are closed. As we have already begun to see, colleges and universities, especially those whose budgets depend heavily on tuition and fees, will make more radical cuts—including to tenured and tenure-track faculty—in the name of financial stability. Some institutions already in financial peril will close their doors permanently.

These events play out on top of existing flaws in the system. I made the choice to leave a traditional academic path pre-covid for a constellation of reasons. Most importantly, I face limits on my career growth at my current institution that I find untenable. At the same time, I am unwilling to pay the personal costs of moving to a different part of the country, even for a “dream” tenure-track job. For me, these costs would include disrupting my spouse’s career, leaving a community we love, and the inability to support a disabled family member living nearby. Others experience different barriers to and strains on traditional academic careers, but the outcome is similar: many scholars are considering whether to leave this path. The pandemic fallout in academia suggests that many also will soon be pushed off, less than willingly.

In this environment, I believe independent scholarship may be more important than ever. I study ecology, in which a key principle is that biological diversity makes ecosystems more stable, and even more productive. Analogously, independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole by enabling more paths through scholarly careers, and expanding who is actively engaged in scholarship at any time. As the pandemic exacerbates academia’s shortcomings, I see potential for the number of independent scholars to grow. This, I think, can be a good thing, even if the events leading to a scholar’s independence might be traumatic and unjust. Extending a bit further the metaphor on biological diversity, we know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.

One thing standing in the way of this vision is that relatively few recognize that independent scholarship is an option, or that groups like the Ronin Institute exist to mitigate some major pitfalls of independent scholarship. The costs of independent scholarship’s low visibility are two-fold. On one hand, scholars who don’t realize it’s an option can’t ask whether it’s right for them. On the other, structural factors hindering independent scholarship might be ameliorated if our position were better known. Understanding that not all who leave academia will become independent scholars, nor should all independent scholars be Ronin Scholars, I hope that Ronin Scholars and friends of the Institute will spread the word.

Jon Walter is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. He is also affiliated with the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. He is the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research, a research and consulting firm and co-hosts a podcast called “Major Revisions” that comments on topics in ecology and academia from the perspective of three early-career scientists. You can read more about Jon and his research on his website.