The Goals of the Ronin Institute

Greetings Roniños y Roniñas!

Over the weekend, your Ronin Institute got some nice press coverage in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. You can read the whole article here. Here’s the take-home message, though:

The goal, Wilkins says, isn’t just offering up a short-term solution to the current scarcity of academic jobs. It’s suggesting a new system altogether, named for ronin—the samurai who broke with the code of feudal Japan, refusing to commit suicide upon the deaths of their masters. “The analogy is, if you’re not employed by a university and you’re an academic, you’re supposed to say, ‘Well, I’m not an academic anymore.’ You’re supposed to sort of commit professional suicide at that point,” Wilkins said. “And what we’re saying is, ‘You know what? No, we can do this. We don’t need a master.’”

The article does a pretty good job of providing an introduction to what we’re all about, but I wanted to take a moment to spell out the goals of the institute a bit more, especially for those people who have found their way here as a result of the Globe article.

Basically, the purpose of the Ronin Institute is to reinvent academia outside of the academy, to invent new ways to fund, support, and connect scholars who are doing their research outside of the traditional setting of the university (or National Laboratory, independent research institute, etc.). Simple enough, right?

The difficulty comes in talking in more detail about this new, alternative model for scholarship. The reason is that there is no single model that we are trying to push. The “right way” to pursue independent scholarship is going to vary from person to person, just as the reasons for pursuing their scholarship independently are going to vary. For some people, independent scholarship is a stepping stone, a way to keep themselves in the game while they are pursuing their long-term goal of securing a more traditional position. For others (myself included), independence is the long-term goal. If you come back and check up on me five or ten years from now, and you find me in a tenured faculty position, it will mean that I have failed (or maybe that I suffered a personality-altering head injury).

For me, there are multiple features of independence that appeal. For one thing, I hate departmental politics, and find that there are things on which I am unwilling to compromise, even when I understand the necessity of compromise. For another, my wife spent fifteen years moving to wherever I needed to be. As an independent scholar, I can move to a place that works well for her, and for our family as a whole. Most importantly, I can define my own research agenda, without worrying about whether or not it fits within someone else’s definition of “evolutionary biology,” and without worrying excessively about issues of fundability. So long as I can bring in enough money to keep paying for the mortgage, groceries, and health insurance, that’s good enough.

I have spent my entire academic career dealing with variations on the following: “It’s great that you’re working on X, or that you’re interested in Y, but you really need to spend more time doing Z.” Now, I don’t know how much time you’ve ever spent doing Z, but it is boring as hell, and it is not clear to me that more Z makes the world a better place. X and Y, on the other hand, are awesome, and there is no doubt in my mind that, fifty years from now, people are going to be saying, “Thank God there was someone who had the foresight to work on X way back then, otherwise where would we be?”

For other people, the answer is different. The Globe article emphasized those people who are having difficulty finding a position. One of the issues with academia is that a gap in your resume can spell disaster. After you go for more than a couple of years without some sort of a position, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something. For these people, continuing to pursue their research in affiliation with Ronin can help to ensure that a two-year gap does not turn into a ten-year gap.

For some people, independence means relief from the geographical constraints of the academic job market, the fact that you basically have to go wherever the job is. This can be particularly hard for those two-academic households, where people are often faced with a choice: either one of you sacrifices your career, or you wind up living in a different city from your partner for much of the year. Of course, there are other things that can constrain a person’s job search. Maybe you need to live within an hour of your home town to look after an ailing parent. Maybe there are only a couple of places where you can live and be close to a religious or ethnic community that is really important to you.

For many people, the problem with academia is the lifestyle: the long hours, the stress, the travel. This is where the idea of “fractional scholarship” that Sam Arbesman and I have been pushing comes in. We believe that the people who would like spend ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week doing scholarly research number in the tens of thousands. Some of these would-be fractional scholars have full-time non-academic jobs that limit their hours. Some simply want to be able to pick up their kids from school every day.

For example, I was recently speaking with a woman whom I know from college. She got her PhD in Physics, and then took time off to have four kids. Now, ten years later, she would like to get involved with research again. It would be a real challenge for her to re-enter the academic job market with that ten-year gap. But, even more, she has no desire to jump back into a seventy-hour-a-week career. What she wants is to be able to use her expertise in and passion for science to do meaningful research, and to get paid to do it, but still to be able to go to all of her kids’ soccer games.

When you’ve got someone with this much intelligence, education, and talent, living in a country this wealthy, it would be ridiculous if we could not find a way to make that work.

The question that people seem to ask most is, “where is the money going to come from?” The answer to this question is actually pretty simple. It’s the same place that money always comes from for research: a combination of grants from federal agencies (NSF, NIH, etc.), private foundations, and individual donors. We will be working with independent scholars to identify, secure, and manage grants for specific research projects, just as university departments do for their faculty. In addition, we will be helping some of our scholars to partner with other researchers, agencies, or even companies to take on consulting jobs or subcontracts that can make use of their expertise and supplement their incomes.

And, of course, the extent to which our independent scholars need money varies from case to case. Some people are in the fortunate position of having a partner with a more traditional job (academic or not) that pays most of the bills. What those people need is mainly legitimacy and community, and maybe money to pay for conference travel and publication costs, so that their academic habit is at least financially neutral in their household. Some people really need to find salary support to make ends meet, even if it is only part time.

We start from the premise that if you have the skills, passion, and training to do meaningful academic research, you should not be precluded from doing it by the arbitrary constraints of the traditional system. Then, of course, there’s the fact that there is nothing that can stop us from reinventing academia when we’re working together. The rest, as they will say in the future, is history.

13 thoughts on “The Goals of the Ronin Institute

  1. I read the exciting article in the Ideas section of the Globe on Sunday. Use of the word “wayward” referring to independent scholars seems at best inappropriate and at worst misleading to me, but never mind that.

    My talents in hardware and software computer engineering have been more marketable over the years than my doctorate in mathematics (1973, category theory). Hence I have been academically unaffiliated for a long time. In the last few years I taught mathematics in high school, at an on-line for-profit college, and for the past year on-campus in a community college as an adjunct instructor. But independently I am always pursuing research in foundations of mathematics and philosophy. (Last year I published a book on mathematical mechanics which includes a modern “theory of substances” that underpins classical chemical thermodynamics. In general, my passion is to understand and communicate mathematical science.)

    Adjunct work is unreliable and inadequate. Ideally, I would be supported by grant funding for a mathematical philosophy book, working title “The Reality of Virtuality.” (By the way, the only element of academia that appeals to me is the possible association with people I can learn from. A plus would be if they found my research of interest.)

    An idea for the Ronin Institute to connect independent scholars with adequate funding to pursue their research is to build a science-oriented analog of the pop-culture oriented fundraiser, Kickstarter. Researchers would explain their research progress and objectives, and site visitors would essentially vote with their wallets to support projects. The key to this is publicity, and the Globe article is just the beginning! Many thanks for creating the Ronin Institute.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t a big fan of “wayward,” either. But, you know, there’s always something.

      There are actually already a couple of Kickstarter-like outfits that focus on science. One is called “Petri Dish,” I think. We talked about starting something like that up, but then decided that maybe the better thing would be to partner with one of the existing fundraisers, or maybe help people to put together their campaigns.

      • Okay — I am checking PetriDish out but they do seem focused on biology and social science rather than, say, physics and mathematics. Thanks for the pointer.

        What might I do to help the Ronin Institute? And, naturally, I would like to start fundraising to support writing my book. Please advise

        • PetriDish seems slanted to serve Academia, not independent scholars: “We currently only accept projects from researchers with affiliations at universities, nonprofits, or other research institutions. This includes tenured and junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.”

        • Well, we’re still just getting up and running at the moment, trying to get a sense of what is going to work and what isn’t.

          I don’t have a good sense yet of exactly what all of the crowd-funding mechanisms out there are. If there is something that can be made to work for independent scholars, it seems a shame to duplicate effort. Or maybe there is some existing outfit that could be encouraged to expand their model. I figure that setting up a new crowd-funding platform should be something that we do only as a last resort, but it may turn out that that’s the way to go.

  2. ‘Heard about the project through Sam Arbesman, and it sounds fantastic!

    It’s funny: I was thinking about how to build a think tank of research mavericks back in January, and I’m so glad to see that someone has done it!

    As soon as I read the post, I also jumped to KickStarter, and was thinking the same thing as Ellis about PetriDish. The latter site will not fund Ronin, and thus it might be helpful to create a site where people can fund research projects that they find interesting regardless of whether the researcher is university-affiliated. Quality control would be the hard part, but I think that a peer-review system could be a good way to get it going (4-week turnaround? 2??). Even if it would not be possible to create a peer-review network on Ronin, perhaps the quality control could be accomplished by having applicants submit researcher recommendations as part of the process.

    Also, once you start getting into experimentation with human subjects, you are going to need some kind of IRB, no?

    Another thought I wanted to suggest was also having people join as scholar-practitioners whose work could also be a source of funding. As an example, many researchers have rockin’ levels of data-analytical awesomeness, and they also know how to do things like write white papers.

    Good luck, and keep us all posted on how we can help!



    • Actually, Ronin is in the process of establishing nonprofit status, so it should not necessarily be excluded from PetriDish.

      I think your point about having some sort of vetting process is a good one. Peer review is, of course, imperfect and labor intensive. However, it is also the standard, and I think that without something like that, any attempt at crowd funding is going to be a non-starter.

      The IRB question is an interesting one. My sense is that it does not make sense to actually have an IRB until you’re above some critical size. For the occasional project review, an alternative is to contract with a University IRB somewhere. I’ve done this once before, and I think it cost something like $2000 to get a review done. That was just for data handling, though, and I suspect that for something like, say, a psychology project with actual human subjects, the review might be more extensive and costly.

      Thanks for writing in! We’ll definitely be keeping you posted.


      • In any (physical; mental) discipline there exists an objective hierarchy of accomplishment. Individuals who — on average — solve more problems (run faster; prove a theorem) better than me are higher up. These superior beings are rare, and frequently offered honors and funds accordingly.

        They often feel responsible for advancing their discipline by encouraging (coaching; mentoring) up-and-coming practitioners, and by selecting work of mature practitioners for publicity (contest judging; peer review).

        Focus on peer review by superior scholars. Since these beings are rare, they are flooded with work for review. Aside from feelings of responsibility, they may be motivated by curiosity, or even by monetary compensation. In any case, they deploy criteria to filter their input (or have someone do it for them).

        Since scholarly research funding is a limited resource, administrators of funds rely on superior scholars to review proposals. My guess is that academic affiliation is almost universally the first criterion. Therefore, independent scholars are first to be shunted aside from funding channels.

        Appeal to the general public is probably a poor idea, PetriDish notwithstanding. What superior being, let alone a layperson, would appreciate how important it might be to have a technical understanding of the relationship between virtuality and reality in formal mathematical terms?

        Maybe publicity about the Ronin Institute might eventually reach superior beings who could realize there is potentially valuable research pursued by independent scholars. Just like love, we need all the science we can get. Out of sheer altruism perhaps superior beings will volunteer to review our research proposals — and recommend them for funding.

  3. I read about the Ronin Institute in the Globe, then got a reminder when Jon Wilkins was interviewed on the local NPR station in Boston.

    In the Ronin web site and blog posts I’m noticing a concentration on math, physics, and biology. Is the mission of Ronin to maintain a strict focus in science research? In my own case, I am a visual artist/exhibit designer with interest in math/science. In my interdisciplinary research I am tracing connections between art and science in the late 20th century –for example, examining the shared concepts associated with Pop art and developments in quantum mechanics, information theory, molecular biology, and genetics. In order to carry out this research, I have found that I need to not only delve into biographical and historical records of the artists, but also become better versed in an broad array of science fields in which I am non-expert. It’s important to me that this become more than just a parlor game (what if Alan Turing met Robert Rauschenberg?) and that I find ways of grounding and documenting these parallels in substance. Uncovering the hidden connections between such disparate fields is vital to both art and science, since it delineates bounded cultural biases that limit the possibilities of what can be thought. I would relish the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with scientists, but crossing disciplinary borders is yet another taboo within traditional academia. Is Ronin going to facilitate the kinds of cross-disciplinary connections that will help us all to question the paradigms that constrain out thinking?

    • Hi Michael,

      I think that the apparent emphasis on the natural sciences is simply a reflection of the fact that the two people who currently post here are both biologists. So, personally, my experience with and knowledge of academia is much richer in biology than in other fields. However, I hope that the Institute might be of use/help to people in any field, including the arts and humanities. In fact, given the virtual nature of the institute, I think that, in the long run, it might be primarily of use to people in the social sciences and humanities.

      On the question of transdisciplinarity, yes, absolutely. I think that the motivation for a lot of people to be independent scholars is the fact that their research does not fit neatly into a traditional University department. One of the goals is to provide independent scholars with a network of colleagues, with the thought that some of those colleagues might turn into real collaborations. I very much hope that we can be the sort of place that will facilitate exactly the type of communication and collaboration that you’re talking about.

      • Jon,

        Thanks for your response. I hope that my comments will encourage other humanities scholars to come forward. Many of the issues that are being raised by you and other Ronin associates –fractional scholarship, the price of the PhD., and the whole idea of a think tank for independent scholars –are resonating very strongly for me. The trade off for those who choose to remain outside academia is the sense of isolation, and the fear of being viewed as irrelevant, especially if the research area is not mainstream or challenges the norm. I think one important aspect of the Ronin Institute may be the offer of legitimacy and, hopefully, providing a portal for independent scholars to become active participants in the dialogue in their respective fields. Becoming known without the imprimatur of the institution is a hard nut to crack.

  4. First, I spent 24 years as non-tenure faculty without PhD at same university, brought in more funding to university than any other investigator in department, but when my grant went south, door actually did hit me in the ass. So, we agree there is a role for Ronin Inst. and now how should it work? Ad hoc groups rarely sustain without a benefactor (best with endowment) and a strategy– latter comes first to attract the former. Strategy should be founded on the tenets of science (regardless of discipline) including vetting, innovation, and transition (relevance). Ideas for strategy have been posted– another to emulate is the ESRI Ideas portal (of course, they are the benefactor). Thanks to Dr. Wilkins for outreach leadership– this is only beginning of this revolution.

  5. Dear Jon,

    I strongly applaud your absolutely needed initiative. In fact, independent research is pretty much what the p2p foundation network is about; we continuously build up our commons, create networks such as the Association of P2P Researchers; look and share grant information to create consortia in which we combine both formal academic institutions and individuals, and independent scholars. We have a nonprofit that maintains our commons, and a separate coop ‘phyle’, that looks for income so that the contributors of our commons can create a livelyhood with what they do. Hope we can talk about shared experiences, ideas, and perhaps even any future cooperation.

    Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation

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