By Research Scholar Oumaima Ben Amor
What we innovate, invent, advance, or know today started off as research fueled by our curiosity. Research is an essential phase in the understanding of problems and challenges which involves the development of new ideas and solutions. It has long shed light on the global threats that we are facing today. The greatest threat to our global security, climate change, was and still is a subject of debate among researchers worldwide. The best example that supports this is the consensus that was built in the scientific literature over the past decades on anthropogenic climate change. Research has also created many solutions, approaches, and technologies that support the achievement of sustainable development, and academia has always been the enabling environment for the pursuit of such endeavors.
On the other hand, academia faces environmental, social, and governance challenges that might deter its core mission, create inequalities and limit opportunities. A change within the academic systems is needed. But what if the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship is already making this change?
In order to assess the sustainability of the Ronin Institute, the ESG approach, which is the acronym for Environmental, Social, and Governance, is utilized. ESG criteria are used to evaluate the alignment of an organization’s goals and targets with measures that support a low-carbon transition, healthy relationships between the organization and its stakeholders, and strong leadership and management. For each criterion, a set of goals are analyzed. These goals are inspired by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the most prominent global movement in alignment with ESG.
A change within the academic systems is needed. But what if the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship is already making this change?
In traditional academia, when a principal investigator (PI) moves or the project terminates, the equipment tends to remain unused or is disposed of unless the university has other research projects that would benefit from it. That can lead to a huge waste of resources and inefficient use of existing research equipment. The Ronin Institute, however, promotes the culture of using and sharing existing research facilities or lab equipment, for laboratory-based scientists that desire to go independent, rather than building new ones that eventually contribute to increasing CO2 emissions. Research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests that laboratories typically consume 5 to 10 times more energy per square foot than office buildings. Building a new lab can be a financially and environmentally daunting task given the insulation, ventilation, and uninterrupted power supply requirements, to name a few. The construction on its own is a huge contributor to climate change, which accounted for 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018, according to IEA. A University College London’s sustainable labs adviser, Martin Farley claims that there is better maintenance for equipment and a better understanding of its usefulness when it is shared. The diversity of the background of scholars and the broadness of their expertise at the Ronin Institute might allow the sharing of expertise in making the most of various lab instruments.
Additionally, the Ronin Institute promotes open science; a recommendation that was agreed upon during the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meeting in Paris, from 9 to 24 November 2021. Open science allows for efficient data reproducibility and avoids unnecessary repetitions of failed experiments. When workflows are shared, researchers can build directly and efficiently on previous research. Since any generated research data represents a huge investment of energy and materials, any technique, method, or movement such as open science that reduces repetition will contribute to resource efficiency and thus to sustainability.
The Ronin Institute… promotes the culture of using and sharing existing research facilities or lab equipment… rather than building new ones that eventually contribute to increasing CO2 emissions… The diversity of the background of scholars and the broadness of their expertise at the Ronin Institute might allow the sharing of expertise in making the most of various lab instruments.
Nevertheless, digital emissions are an undeniable challenge in the sustainability agenda of an online model for a research institute. Digital innovation enables climate change mitigation and adaptation but contributes to CO2 emissions in the Information and Communications Technology sector ( ICT ). Fortunately, the latter is expected to decrease to 1.97% of the global total by 2030, from 2.3% in 2020. Again, research paves the way for such progress by studying data centers’ sustainability and investigating green cloud computing, to name a few.
Doing the day-to-day tasks that anyone from a traditional academic position is doing, from the comfort of your own home will contribute effectively to reducing emissions in the transport sector. According to NREL, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from commuting can contribute 10%–30% of a research campus’s baseline, depending on the number of commuters and the traveled distances.
According to the IEA, working from home can save energy and reduce emissions. The analysis shows that if everyone able to work from home worldwide were to do so for just one day a week, it would save the world around 24 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, taking into account the increase brought in energy use by households. If that were to be done for more than one day, the reduction in emissions would be even higher. The impact of home working on transport varies according to the region, time of year, and fuel efficiency. For the residential side, the impact is dependent on the average sizes of homes, heating or cooling needs, and the efficiency of appliances. Normally, if the energy mix has a high percentage of renewables, the impact will be negligible.
It is true that for short commutes and public transportation, working from home will likely result in a small increase in CO2 emissions, but again this is dependent on the energy mix. Moreover, public transportation is not always a safe option for workers, especially in developing countries. Furthermore, progress made in the decarbonization of the electricity sector is higher than in the transport sector. According to OECD, since 2000, electricity emissions have fallen by 8% while transport emissions have increased by 5%.
While working from home can be restraining for almost all industries and laboratory-based researchers, it has little to no impact on other researchers’ work.
Fortunately, the percentage of remote positions has more than tripled compared to pre-COVID and continues to climb. The Ronin Institute supports this ongoing growth. The number of people who renewed their membership reached 354 and counting, which approximately represents 70% of the entire membership population. The figure below illustrates the cumulative membership renewals in the Ronin Institute in the last two months.
While working from home can be restraining for almost all industries and laboratory-based researchers, it has little to no impact on other researchers’ work. COVID lockdowns forced them to work differently, but no less efficiently than before. Keith Tse, a scholar and community journalist at the Ronin Institute, has managed during the pandemic to work successfully on his research with the available electronic devices during lockdown carrying out tasks like annotating linguistic structure and performing statistical analysis. Moreover, conferences are an essential part of the lives of scholarly researchers. Having the opportunity to attend them virtually without having to worry about travel or accommodation costs promotes accessibility for low-paid and untenured academic researchers. In his article, Keith Tse attests to the financial benefits of attending virtual rather than in-person conferences during lockdowns.
… at the Ronin Institute, we creatively and regularly combat social isolation through Slack… which works well for Ronin Research Scholars anywhere in the world.
Undoubtedly, working from home can negatively impacts our mental health. But at the Ronin Institute, we creatively and regularly combat social isolation through Slack for its asynchronous communication which works well for Ronin Research Scholars anywhere in the world. We also use Kumospace and Zoom for our face-to-face meetings and online events that require temporal coordination and prior scheduling. We try to vary the platform, style, and time of day depending on the time zones and schedules of Research Scholars and the needs and format of the events.
Less bureaucracy does not only tap into improved governance but also a more efficient use of papers and the digitalization of materials, a key enabler for sustainable development. According to the EPA, the average office worker produces about 2 pounds of paper and cardboard waste every single day. Paper production causes deforestation, requires huge amounts of energy and water and increases air pollution and landfill waste. EPA reports that the total direct emissions in the US from paper and pulp manufacturing reached 24 502 754 metric tons of CO2 eq in 2020. At the Ronin Institute, on the other hand, all our administrative papers (membership renewal, welcome packet, scholars survey…) are administered online.
When we are more… mindful of lowering our climate change footprint, we are more likely to buy what we need and cook the right amount…
Moreover, the pandemic has drastically altered consumer behavior. For instance, when people are working from home they are more likely to use their own coffee mugs instead of single-use mugs that end up in a landfill. Food habits have also changed. A survey conducted by Brain & Company for people residing in five European economies showed that home cooking has increased compared to the pre-covid times: around 40% of people said they would be eating home-cooked meals as much as before, while the same number said they would eat home cooking more often. Such trends do not only mean less consumption of single-use plastics but may also mean less food waste. When we are more concerned about saving money and mindful of lowering our climate change footprint, we are more likely to buy what we need and cook the right amount, even though these assumptions differ from one person to another.
Research for all
The Ronin Institute is taking a leap towards enabling research for all as a springboard for sustainable scientific development. One of our guiding principles is providing a safe and harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, age, race, disability, ethnicity, geographic location, economic standing, professional status, and all other categories of social differences. Jon Wilkins, founder of the Ronin Institute, believes that one does not have to rely on these factors in judging someone else’s work: The only way to do it is simply to read the work. These ethics go hand in hand with the universal values, set by the United Nations in enabling equality and non-discrimination. At the Ronin Institute, we believe in the power of accessibility and exchange in improving the effectiveness and productivity of the scientific process. We also allow better dissemination and engagement in science through our events (lightning talks, seminars, etc). Ronin Research Scholars also share their research findings through interest group meetings. We promote collaborations by encouraging scholars to get to know one another because we acknowledge that diversity creates opportunities and unlocks research potential. Having scholars from different geographic locations enables North-South research collaborations, which can help find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. It is worth mentioning that the world’s major problems are globally interconnected. Such partnerships can enable researchers in the Global South to access funds and resources and provide researchers in the Global North with new perspectives and challenges These efforts in community building weave together a network from which scholars in established labs can find and nurture connections globally. Daniel Chan, a Ronin Research Scholar, sees labs as a social enterprise which explores ways to organize around scientific resources as much as a scientific enterprise tries to innovate and contribute to our collective knowledge. A lab is more than just equipment, and he believes that, if we are to move towards a more equitable and decentralized academic system, overlapping communities of shared values are essential. His work in co-ordinating with the NYC-based community lab Biotech Without Borders has derived benefits from being in a community with independent scholars through shared discussions, insights, and passions. He hopes to see other communities experiment with this organizational paradigm and embrace the progressive values of groups such as the Ronin Institute.
At the Ronin Institute, we believe in the power of accessibility and exchange in improving the effectiveness and productivity of the scientific process.
Independent research can help trained researchers or Ph.D. graduates secure non-traditional academic positions in a competitive job market. According to an article in Nature, only about one-quarter of PhD students in the US can reasonably expect to achieve such positions. In fact, one of the Ronin Institute’s objectives, which were originally conceived by Jon F. Wilkins, is to help people with PhDs to continue their scientific work, even if only at night and on weekends. This dilemma of too many PhD graduates and few academic job openings is ubiquitous, especially in developing countries with a less allocated budget for research and even a lack of available research equipment and means. Not to mention, those who wish to pursue a PhD but have no available opportunities. Research Scholars can apply for grants using their Ronin affiliation to work on their own research projects.
“In scientific work, means are virtually nothing whereas the person is almost everything.”Advice for a Young Investigator (1999), Santiago Ramón y Cajal
As a matter of fact, there are many lines of investigations open to independent scholars with limited resources: theoretical studies, reanalysis of previously published results, computer simulations, and metastudies or literature reviews, to name a few. Indeed, the concept of doing science with limited resources is not new. In the 1999 translation of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s 1916 book Advice for a Young Investigator, it is said, “In scientific work, means are virtually nothing whereas the person is almost everything.”
Keith Tse sees that the significant drop in revenues in academia and higher education during the pandemic seems to have a ripple effect on admissions and employment which may push many established academics to leave academia and start their independent research journey. The Ronin Institute would be a great option to consider.
Partnerships through interdisciplinary research
Having researchers gathered in a community like the Ronin Institute fosters a culture of sharing through weekly discussions and rich channel content, to name a few. Moreover, the diversity of our members’ research backgrounds promotes awareness about interdisciplinary research challenges, which creates more collaboration and allows partnership. We do believe that impact is likely to be created across disciplines and that a problem cannot be solved with the tools of a single discipline alone. Through the integration of information, concepts, and perspectives of two or more disciplines we can tap into one of the most challenging interlinkages such as the Water Energy Food Nexus, and create meaningful collaborative networks. Collaborations are seen as opportunities for improvement and self-development, as described by Arika Virapongse, Gavin Taylor, Alex Lancaster, and Daniel Mietchen: Publishing together, interacting together, working together – by owning their ‘independent’ affiliation, independent researchers can collectively improve….
Interdisciplinary research can be also practiced individually. The Ronin institute can be a great place for researchers to practice their multi-perspective approaches and passion for other fields. John LaRocco, a Ronin Research Scholar passionate about the technological history of humanity, has conducted interdisciplinary research that combines digital archeology and library science. He has studied the Jeju Historical Machines Collection and its role in assisting with citizen science, experimental archeology, historical re-enactment, museum preservation, and cultural expression across the world.
… the diversity of our members’ research backgrounds promotes awareness about interdisciplinary research challenges, which creates more collaboration and allows partnership.
The cooperative-inspired model
The governance structure of the Ronin Institute is composed of grants and financial administration that is led by the board of directors, and the community is led by the advisory board, as shown in the chart below:
The governance structure in the Ronin Institute is mostly inspired by the seven principles of cooperatives, just as Jon Wilkins says: “Everybody drives a truck ”. Membership of working groups is available for any Ronin Research Scholar who is interested to contribute and help. We all have the right to participate in the decision-making regardless of financial contribution. The Ronin Institute holds governance meetings every month, asking scholars to share their inputs, ideas, and people’s power to maintain the Governance structure, which eventually improves current practices and informs future actions.
Truth and Empathy are two core values that guide the development of our governance structure…
Truth and Empathy are two core values that guide the development of our governance structure, just as emphasized in our code of conduct along with other values.
The problem with traditional academia is that the number of management/HR positions is expanding at a higher rate than faculty or research ones. This trend can push for more complicated bureaucracy, deterring the core mission of research and education. At Yale University, for instance, over the last two decades, the number of managerial and professional staff has risen three times faster than the undergraduate student body which has resulted in unnecessary costs, excessive regulations, and a leadership burden. The Ronin Institute, however, is an alternative model that opts for minimal viable bureaucracy. The Ronin Institute’s philosophy is to never add a layer of complexity that is not absolutely necessary, be it a layer of regulation, a formal procedure, or a staff position. For example, for each contribution you wish to make (submitting a blog post, submitting a grant proposal, updating your Ronin web presence: a newly added feature, starting an interest group) there is a well-defined and clear form to fill in. There is also a signup sheet for giving a lightning talk. Each Ronin Research Scholar is a self-directed member rather than being controlled by top-down management structures. Less bureaucracy allows for faster communication between members, a clearer and smoother flow of information, and a higher project completion rate. Research published in NIH shows that research units with higher bureaucratization have lower scientific performance. Arika Virapongse, a Scholar and community director of the Ronin Institute, emphasizes the importance of doing our activities and their maintenance with the least of everything including bureaucracy. This principle on its own outlines one of the pillars of sustainability: efficiency.
The Ronin Institute… is an alternative model that opts for minimal viable bureaucracy.
The Ronin Institute model has been showing positive environmental, social, and governance outcomes. Environmental benefits can be considered minor, but with more and more academics/researchers joining the institute, this can be further expanded. The social benefits that have been achieved so far can be considered progress towards the achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals, which include reducing poverty, improving education, and reducing inequalities, to name a few. All the above-mentioned benefits cannot be achieved without a clear and strong governance structure, an area in which the Ronin Institute excels. For the Ronin institute to achieve sustainability on a regular and incremental basis, increased awareness of independent scholarship and a stable funding stream are needed.
I would love to convey my special thanks to Keith Tse for his insightful suggestions and for editing my article. I would love also to thank Daniel Chan, John LaRocco, and Malte Willmes for their constructive feedback and valuable contribution.
Oumaima is an independent scholar at the Ronin Institute and a sustainability consultant at Our Hiraya. After studying energy, she aspired to expand her knowledge in sustainable development. She believes that the biggest climate change challenges lie within interlinkages. Driven by the latter, she works hard to demonstrate the relevance of climate to organizations and to study different energy and water systems and their interconnections.
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.