Why Ronin?

Have questions about why the Ronin Institute exists? Why it needs to exist? You can find the answers to these questions and more here. For answers to more logistical / technical questions, see our FAQ.

  1. Why start the Ronin Institute?
    The conventional wisdom in academic circles is that a tenure-track faculty position is the path to pursuing a career in scholarly research. While that is certainly a path, it is not a path that works for everyone. There are many more talented, dedicated scholars than there are faculty positions. We estimate that there are on the order of 100,000 underemployed PhDs in the United States alone. This represents an enormous waste of human capital. If we can develop ways to better engage these scholars and allow them to contribute to their fields, we all benefit.
  2. Why “Ronin”?
    According to the traditional Bushido samurai code of feudal Japan, a samurai was pledged to serve a master. If the samurai were to lose his master (due to the master’s death or loss of the master’s favor), he was expected to commit suicide. The ronin were masterless samurai who refused to kill themselves, choosing instead to make a living using their skills. The analogy is this: if you’re not employed by a university, you’re supposed to say, “Well, I guess I’m not an academic anymore.” What we’re saying is, “You know what? No, we can do this. We don’t need a master.”
  3. Okay, that’s a nice idea, but where will you get money to support the scholars?
    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, NASA, etc), private foundations, and individual donors. We work with independent scholars to identify, secure, and manage grants for specific research projects, just as university departments do for their faculty. In addition, we help 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.
  4. Why would a funding agency fund research through the Ronin Institute, rather than through a university?
    Well, for one thing, it is a much more efficient way to spend limited resources. The Ronin Institute does not have the expensive physical infrastructure and bureaucracy found at the modern research university. This lower overhead means that more of the funding that comes in goes to directly support the researchers. In fact, when researchers have transferred existing university grants to Ronin, we have been able to rebudget the existing awards to increase the amount going to support research activities. Furthermore, independent scholars do not have the same sorts of administrative and bureaucratic duties that take up so much of a university professor’s time. So, not only does more of the funding go to supporting the researchers, more of the researchers’ time is available for the actual research.
  5. But how do I know if a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute is any good? How do I know they’re not a crackpot?
    You read the work. The only legitimate measure of academic quality is the academic product: the books, papers, and other outputs that the researcher creates. We’re proud of the quality of Ronin work and will happily compare it to the products of more “traditional” academic settings. However, if you are a funder or a reviewer, it is critical that you evaluate researchers and projects on a case-by-case basis, and that you not rely on indirect proxies like institutional name recognition.
  6. But if all of these people start participating in scholarship, won’t that devalue the work of traditional academics?
    The hypercompetitive climate of academia – faculty searches, tenure track, publishing, and grants – diverts attention from scholarship to competition and finance. While those forces can be motivational, they produce zero-sum thinking that discourages speculation, innovation, and collaboration. Increasing the pool of developers to work on Linux (and other open-source projects) improved contributions and outcomes. The Ronin Institute aims to provide similar opportunities for the world of scholarship.
  7. If the scholars are “independent” why bother with an institutional structure at all?
    In some fields, it is entirely possible to function as a fully independent scholar, but in others it is more difficult. Having an institutional non-profit structure makes it easier for Ronin Scholars to apply for and manage federal grants. In the United States in particular, much research is funded federally, and the current system is built around the funding of projects via institutions. Ronin’s 501(c)3 status makes Research Scholars eligible to apply for funding through foundations that restrict their support to non-profits. For individual donors, our non-profit status means that donations to support specific research projects are tax deductible. In addition, establishing a community of independent scholars who can share experiences and expertise, and can collaborate on papers and projects, is valuable in itself.
  8. What’s wrong with just leaving this to the universities?  How are we supposed to evaluate whether these “off-the-grid” contributions are worthwhile?
    Again, you read the work! If you are evaluating someone in the context of reviewing a manuscript, or a grant proposal, or on a hiring committee, you read their work and decide if it is good. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge or time to do this, you have no business evaluating them. If you are simply saying, “Well, this person got tenure at such-and-such University, I guess they must be good”, you’re not doing your job.
  9. If somebody didn’t get a tenure-track job, or achieve tenure, surely that is a red flag?  Most universities want their faculty to get tenure.
    There are far more smart people out there than tenure-track jobs. We shouldn’t waste talent just because the university budget won’t support it. In addition, many independent scholars did not “not receive tenure.” Some have never wanted a tenure-track position. Some have received tenure and walked away from it. Some would, ideally, like tenure, but are geographically constrained. Also, yes, most universities work hard to support their tenure-track faculty and get them to tenure. However, most universities are also reducing the number of tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct positions, which pay less and provide little or no job security.
  10. Doesn’t the current competitive environment for tenure-track faculty jobs just make for “fitter” academics and “better” research?
    Two forces make the idea that the current tenure system creates “fitter” academics suspect: 1) issues in the quality of research that is carried out; 2) the cost to scholarship of research that isn’t carried out. The first force is the current environment of hypercompetition and metrics to publish more and faster which can lead to issues in quality, especially in science (see Alberts et al., 2013, Higginson & Munafò, 2016, Maldino & McElreath, 2016, Nissen et al., 2016, see also answer to Q8). The second force is driven by what might be called seniority bias. Senior faculty play a deciding role in the present tenure system. These are people who have proved their mettle, developing the presently accepted framework of thought. The evaluators believe in their paradigm; they respond favorably to ideas that build on it; they respond negatively to ideas that present alternatives that might threaten the foundations of their thinking. Hence, the tenure system rewards solid thinking that extends the current paradigm: ideas that are new, but not too new; scholarship that is creative, but not disruptive. The same might be said of the peer review system for publications.
    None of these criticisms of existing academic structures of tenure and publishing should be taken as a reason to reject the large body of knowledge generated by those associated with academic institutions. There are broad consensuses amongst scholars in many fields (whether independent or otherwise) that are backed-up by years of evidence, including the link between smoking and cancer, the existence of anthropogenic climate change and the theory of evolution. Of course, individual researchers and scholars may contest the currently accepted paradigms, or pursue unconventional or experimental approaches in whatever field they are studying, but they do not reject careful scholarship, and fact-based solid reasoning itself.
  11. Most scientists or scholars I’ve ever known about were employed by universities.  What have independent scholars ever done?
    For most of history, scholars were more or less independent. Household names such as Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin were independent scholars. The modern research university as we know it has really only existed for about 70 years, dating roughly from Vannevar Bush’s 1945 famous memo “Science: The Endless Frontier.” The subsequent growth of government funding of science and other disciplines has led to universities’ being the major employer of scholars. Nevertheless independent scholarship has continued throughout this time. Some recent notable independent scholars include Grote Reber, a pioneer in radio astronomy and developer of one of the first radio telescopes and James Lovelock, who co-developed the “Gaia hypothesis” with the late Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Lovelock’s contributions heavily contributed to the emerging discipline of geophysiology and Earth system science.
  12. OK, so what do we miss out on with the current academic system of tenure and promotion?  Give me specific examples.
    There are many, but here are a few:

    Scholarship informed by diverse life-experience. The most important discoveries in any field emerge from a combination of knowledge, passion, and creativity. Transformative, paradigm-shifting insights occur when scholars approach their subject from a new perspective. Often, that new perspective derives from the individual scholar’s life experience. Unfortunately, the demands of the traditional academic career severely constrain the set of life experiences that can be brought to bear, increasingly tending to reward people who are good at jumping through the various administrative and career hoops.

     

    Community-involved scholars. Independent scholars decide what projects they work on and allow them to be masters of their own time. It also allows them to get involved in their communities and spend time with their families. In many areas of scholarship, such as the humanities, which benefit from scholars actively involved in their communities, the current all-or-nothing nature of the academic lifestyle can select out those qualities.

     

    Collaborative and reflective interactions. Effective transdisciplinary collaboration and communication is needed to solve pressing problems in the world (global warming, development of alternative energy sources, etc). This is uncontroversial. However, the fiercely competitive nature of academia today, coupled with the relentless focus on finance, tends to reward aggressive self-promotion and aggrandizement, selecting against collaboration, interpersonal communication skills, empathy, and reflection. There is plenty of room for different personality types that want to participate in research but not make it the whole of their lives, this is what we mean by a humane and fractional approach to scholarship.

     

    Spaces for true transdisciplinary approaches. Despite institutional rhetoric around the creation of entrepreneurial and transdisciplinary initiatives, the current system tends to continue to reward excessive specialization at the expense of truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches (Graeber, 2012). Interdisciplinarity tends to be used as a talking point in grant applications, but often department colleagues will look askance if you stray too far from your home discipline, and the use of traditional journal rankings to evaluate faculty tends to downweight researchers who try interdisciplinary approaches (Rafols et al. 2011).

     

    Long-term thinking. The current system optimizes for papers in “high impact” journals, bigger grants, but not always longer-term, smaller-scale, or more blue-sky approaches. And the increasing corporatization of universities is limiting the pool of researchers and the kinds of research questions allowed; e.g., there is an excessive emphasis on short-term research that can easily be “translated” into commercializable products.

Bibliography

Alberts, Bruce, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus. (2014) “Rescuing US Biomedical Research from Its Systemic Flaws.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (16): 5773–77. doi:10.1073/pnas.1404402111.

Bush, Vannevar (1945) Science: the endless frontier: a report to the president on a program for postwar scientific research Office of Scientific Research & Development.

Graeber, David (2012) “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.”The Baffler. http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/of-flying-cars-and-the-declining-rate-of-profit.

Higginson,A.D. and Munafò,M.R. (2016) “Current Incentives for Scientists Lead to Underpowered Studies with Erroneous Conclusions”. PLOS Biology, 14, e2000995.

Nissen,S.B. et al. (2016) “Publication bias and the canonization of false facts”. eLife 5:e21451

Rafols, Ismael, Loet Leydesdorff, Alice O’Hare, Paul Nightingale, and Andy Stirling (2011) “How Journal Rankings Can Suppress Interdisciplinary Research. A Comparison between Innovation Studies and Business & Management.” arXiv:1105.1227, May. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2012.03.015.

Smaldino,P.E. and McElreath,R. (2016) “The Natural Selection of Bad Science.” Royal Society Open Science 3 160384.