‘New academia’ — a safe harbour for researchers who love science

By Dr. Rebecca Willén, founder of IGDORE

For the love of science, many good researchers leave academia. Many seem to not only abandon academia, but at the same time also their scientific careers. Not because they don’t want to do science, but because they don’t know that they can do science without being part of academia. In this post I describe what I’d like to call ‘new academia’, with a specific focus on how it can provide a safe harbour for scholars concerned with the quality of science conducted within traditional academia.


I know of at least two researchers who chose to never finish their PhDs because they lost their faith in science when their supervisors and other seniors engaged in scientific misconduct. I know of another one who took ten years to finish her PhD because she struggled with a supervisor engaged in questionable research practices. I know one who worked as a Research Assistant (RA) in a laboratory where he was supposed to start his PhD education, but he decided to pursue a non-scientific career due to the questionable practices he witnessed as an RA. I know at least two researchers who unsuccessfully tried to convince their supervisors and laboratories to do better science. One of them reluctantly continues to do questionable science while she’s eagerly waiting for promotion and more independence; the other is successively leaving academia for a non-scientific career. Two researchers I know of strongly defended their own and others’ use of questionable practices during their PhD training. Once they left academia, they looked back on their training and scientific work with regret, realising they were never properly trained.

These eight people are all examples from my own professional network and I keep hearing more stories like these from others. In parallel to the replicability crisis, this is a bleeding crisis in itself: the most conscientious researchers are leaving science. A problem that has also been described by e.g. Anne Scheel (“An endangered species: The risk of highly idealistic ECRs leaving academia”), and implicitly by Corina Logan (Bullied Into Bad Science).

Scientific work is not exclusively done at universities. Science is also practised by independent scholars all around the world, with or without a formal doctorate degree. Some are affiliated with independent research institutes such as Ronin Institute for Independent Scholars, Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) and CORES Science & Engineering. Others collaborate with friends and colleagues to start their own independent laboratories (e.g. Walden III), networks (e.g. SENS) or small research companies (e.g. Amber Biology). Yet others pursue science without being affiliated to any institute, network or company, which typically also mean that they conduct science without any funding or employment. Examples of such independent researchers are Jon Tennant (palaeontology), Jordan Anaya (biology & meta-science), Lennart Sjöberg (psychology) and Andrew Rogers (computer science). More examples of independent scholars can be found at Wikipedia.

Part of the new academia: a coworking space for scientists and students (Photo: IGDORE)

These are all examples of what I’d like to call the ‘new academia’. ‘New academia’ is a growing number of diverse opportunities for research scholars to create their own environment in which they conduct their scientific work. ‘New academia’, in contrast to ‘traditional academia’, can always provide a safe harbour for the individual scientist because it doesn’t matter if you’re leaving (traditional) academia to improve your scientific work, work environment or work-life balance: new academia is what you want it to be and you never have to relocate to work there.

But how about funding?

Affiliation with a research institute such as Ronin and IGDORE enables you to apply for grants as your own principal investigator. The head of the institute writes the supporting letter you need when applying and approved grants are hosted by the institute. The same way as if you were affiliated with a traditional university.

Some funding agencies, in particular public agencies, still require the applicant to be affiliated with a traditional university. In light of the ongoing replicability crisis, this trust in universities as unique bearers of scientific quality is unfounded. Indeed the replicability crisis shows us–through examples of early career researchers such as the ones I listed above–that people leaving traditional academia often are committed to a higher degree of scientific rigour than the ones around them who stayed. It is definitely time for the public funding agencies to start evaluate applicants on basis of their actual work and not on which institute they belong to. The European Research Council (ERC) leads the way in this regard. ERC are, since several years, explicitly encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as host institutions for research grants: “Any type of legal entity, public or private, including universities, research organisations and undertakings can host Principal Investigators and their teams” (p. 18) and “The ERC welcomes applications from Principal Investigators hosted by private for-profit research centres, including industrial laboratories” (p. 10; ERC Work Programme 2018).

Researchers without affiliation to a legal entity (in EU) can currently not apply for funding from ERC, but many smaller private foundations do grant funding to individual researchers directly. These are typically rather small grants, but on the other hand such grants are protected from indirect costs: the researcher doesn’t have to pay overhead to any host institution. Many researchers also make a living from other sources, such as consulting or clinical work, while pursuing scientific work in their spare time. That way they are completely free to do whatever they want to do as long as the scientific investigations do not require overly expensive resources such as equipment or staff.

But how about equipment?

In some areas you don’t really need much equipment beyond a laptop and a good internet connection. In other areas you might need really expensive laboratories that only one or a few institutes in the world have prioritized. As a psychologist myself I’ll here focus on social science research.

Psychology is at the forefront of changing practices to improve the quality of science conducted in our field. One important part of this is to increase our sample sizes. Study Swap and Psychological Science Accelerator are making this easier for us all. In fact, these initiatives actually mean that you don’t need to have your own laboratory: you can ask others to collect data in their laboratories while you simply sit at home by your computer waiting for the data to arrive.

Both initiatives do however have limitations: it’s not really up to you to simply decide that you want to have this particular data collected on your behalf; your study might not be among the selected or you might not have the preferred amount of control over your data collection. This is a gap IGDORE is working on filling. Any researcher in the world can hire IGDORE to collect data on their behalf. As for now, we can collect data in Sweden (including IRB application; we will soon also be able to collect data on others’ behalf in Indonesia where we’re currently setting up our first permanent social science laboratory). We set up a temporary social science laboratory where we need it, rent or buy the needed equipment and collect the data for you in line with the latest open scientific practices. You can supervise the work completely remotely; no need for a laboratory where you live or at the institute you’re affiliated with.

Scientists working in new academia (Photo: IGDORE)

In my own ongoing research projects, however, I don’t have participants. One of the studies is based on data from archived material that we’ve collected remotely through an RA we hired for that particular task. In a different project, we’re doing a systematic review of published literature. None of these projects require me to have anything else but a computer, internet and awesome colleagues.

For those who after all are in need of an expensive laboratory equipped with things you cannot find anywhere I do recommend a search online for laboratories offering contract research or space to rent. The number of available and relevant options out there may surprise you.

But how about the formal doctorate degree?

It’s a widespread misconception that scientists/researchers must have a doctorate degree. Funding agencies might require it (most certainly do), but you definitely don’t need any formal title at all to do science. ‘Scientist’ is not a protected title; anyone may call herself a scientist. And as we already know from the ongoing replicability crisis and the examples I’ve provided above, a formal doctorate degree does not guarantee that a researcher actually knows how to practice good science. In line with this, Ronin Institute do accept Research Scholars regardless of whether they have a formal degree or not. At IGDORE, we’re trying a different approach: requirement of actual skills and knowledge in combination with an explicit commitment to a rather stringent code of conduct (yet to be formalised; partly inspired by a blog post by Etienne LeBel and Anne Scheel). As for now, researchers with a formal doctorate degree do not have to prove their competence to become affiliated while researchers without a formal doctorate degree need to have a track record of published research that–as far as we can tell–have been professionally conducted.

What if you lack any type of formal degree and don’t have any scientific publications (yet)? The ‘scientist’ title is perfectly free to use for anyone; however, I would personally recommend you to study scientific research methods and statistics, philosophy of science, ethics for scientists and academic writing (to enable you to successfully share you findings with others in the field). I would also recommend you to find a supervisor knowledgeable in the methods you want to employ. Scientist is an apprentice profession. You may learn a whole lot by reading and through trial and error on your own, but you will become a professional more quickly through proper training under professional supervision (IGDORE has plans related to this).

Coda

We currently see a rise of independent ways of working, a new academia possibly spurred by the replicability crisis: We needed to go somewhere, but we didn’t want to quit science. So for the love of science, we built something new. Welcome to the world of new academia!


Disclosure. All named institutes, networks, companies and independent scientists mentioned in this post are those I personally know of. I haven’t intentionally excluded any examples; I have tried to list all institutes, networks, companies and independent scientists that I could think of at the time of writing the post.


Related Academic Reference. Lancaster AK, Thessen AE and Virapongse A. A new paradigm for the scientific enterprise: nurturing the ecosystem [version 1; referees: 1 approved]. F1000Research 2018, 7:803 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.15078.1)