Movement of the Day: The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship

The Ronin Institute is devoted to facilitating and promoting scholarly research outside the confines of traditional academic research institutions.

Jon Wilkins explains:

“The Ronin Institute … is … hoping to revolutionize academia by connecting unaffiliated scholars to research funding and giving them credibility at the same time—no university required.

“We want to change that perception,” said Jon F. Wilkins, the institute’s founder. “If you’re a physicist and you’re not at a university, but you’re an engineer, or you’re doing physics, or actively pursuing your field of study, you should feel like as much of a scholar, or a physicist, as someone who is doing so as a professor somewhere.”

Wilkins, who earned a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University in 2002, focuses on theoretical evolutionary biology, trying to understand, among other things, how and why our genes dictate behavior. But a few years ago, this 41-year-old academic without a tenure-track job began pondering a different issue: the unharnessed brainpower of the highly educated underemployed. He wrote about it on his personal blog, galvanizing support among his peers. And a few months ago, from his home in Montclair, N.J., Wilkins decided to do something about it, launching the Ronin Institute.”

2. Samuel Arbesman:

“What do we do with everyone who has the skills and passion to make important contributions to scholarship, but for whom the standard model just doesn’t work?
Into the void steps “fractional scholarship.” Just as many people are participating in fractional entrepreneurship, starting companies in their spare time, there is an opportunity for people to take up scholarly research in an independent, part-time capacity. We believe that the number of people who have ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week that they would like to devote to research is large. What is lacking at this point are the funding and organizational structures to support these would-be fractional scholars.

While the concept of independent, fractional scholarship is an exciting one and one that we think has a great deal of potential, as we have argued in a Kauffman Foundation report, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for an individual to participate in scholarship on one’s own. Scholars typically rely on their institutional affiliations to facilitate publication and grant applications, as well as access to journal articles and a community of like-minded scholars.

One of us (Jon Wilkins), has set out to promote and support independent scholarly research through the founding of the Ronin Institute. The Ronin Institute acts as an aggregator for the fractional scholars of the world, providing an institutional affiliation, connection with other fractional scholars, and support for conference travel and grant applications.

When people are doing something that they are passionate about, they work harder and produce a better product. Thus, underemployed scholars represent in some sense a good that is currently trading well below its actual value. By providing a mechanism for those who wish to conduct research, we can allow these people to engage in their passions while growing the base of scholarly knowledge, which in turn has the potential to create further economic growth.

Through the Ronin Institute, we will be harnessing the skills and talents of thousands of underemployed researchers. At the same time, traditional academia will be aided in the creation of a new, attractive career path for people with graduate degrees. They will be performing creative research, some of which could not even be done within traditional academia, and at the same time acting as a newfound scholarly resource for our nation.”

3. What the Ronin Institute wants to achieve:

Jon Wilkins:

“Broadening the pool:There has been a lot of talk recently about the “crisis” in higher education, where we, as a society, produce many more PhDs than there are academic jobs to employ them. Of course, in some fields, like biology and engineering, industry provides many jobs for those with advanced degrees. However, there are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees, yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource, putting underemployed scholars to work doing what they are most passionate about.

A more humane approach to scholarship: The career of the traditional academic researcher has become increasingly time-consuming and all-encompassing. Academics work long hours and face demands that can be difficult to meet for many. For some, health or family considerations make the academic lifestyle untenable. Some scholars take time off to have children, and have difficulty moving back into the traditional academic career path. Of course, for many people, the long academic work week is not just challenging, but undesirable.

There are many legitimate reasons why people might choose not to pursue the standard academic career path. However, many of these people still want the opportunity to do high quality scholarly research. For some, the ideal would be to pursue their research in a part-time capacity, in order to leave time for another part-time job, for family, or just for other interests. We are creating mechanisms to support such part-time scholars, allowing people to pursue their research in ways that work for them, as part of a complete, well rounded life.

Diversifying scholarship: 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. We are creating avenues for people with a broader set of experiences to contribute to academia.

Getting scholars back to work: Many people start off on track for an academic career, but wind up taking an extended hiatus — for health reasons, to have a family, or simply due to burn-out. In the current structure of academia, taking a break usually winds up meaning leaving academia forever.

Restarting a productive research career requires coming back up to speed on the state of the field, establishing new contacts and collaborations, and reestablishing a track record of productivity. We aim to support lapsed scholars wanting to restart their research careers by providing a community of like-minded researchers, as well as funds to support travel to conferences and small pilot projects to help them get back on their feet.

Connecting independent scholars: One of the challenges to pursuing scholarship outside of the traditional academic context is working in isolation. Scholars need a community of people with whom they can share ideas. One of the advantages of the university setting is that these people are typically right down the hall. We are using online tools to connect independent scholars, allowing them to share and critique each other’s ideas, find and develop collaborations, and share their experiences.

A more efficient model of scholarship: The model of independent scholarship that we are developing will be more efficient than the old model, as well. Unlike the traditional academic researcher, the independent scholar has low overhead costs, and is able to devote almost all of their time to research. Consider the independent, part-time scholar, who is funded to pursue research for twenty hours each week. All twenty hours of his or her funded time is spent on research. Compare that with the traditional academic, who is paid full time, works long hours, but is only able to spend a small fraction of his or her time on research. Compared with the traditional alternative, the independent scholar costs less money, and spends more time on scholarship.

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