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.
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.
Alex Lancaster is a Ronin Institute Research Scholar, an affiliated researcher at IGDORE and a computational and evolutionary biologist.
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.