A new paradigm for the scientific enterprise: nurturing the ecosystem

Link to paper

@alex.lancaster I found myself repeatedly cheering ‘yes…yes!’ reading through the paper. :slight_smile:

Additionally, an outdated mentality still persists that the path to faculty tenureship requires putting science ahead of all of life’s other priorities, and this can have a severely negative effect on the mental health of those who try to conform (e.g., 31). While this model may have worked decades ago for those (mostly male) scientists that could rely on compliant spouses to raise families and perform domestic duties, it does not work in today’s world. By presenting it as such, the pool of tenured faculty is limited to those who have the means to commit to such a lifestyle: typically young, male, unencumbered with children and geographically unconstrained.

This is is definitely not emphasized enough. I have been on the receiving end of ‘Science is not a 9 to 5 job’ type emails many times. These emails are all the more irritating when the ‘science’ in question is the PI’s private R&D lab for their biotech company they have managed to setup within the institute. Alas…this is a whole separate can of worms…

We propose an ecosystem as a conceptual model that is relevant both to the training of a scientist and their role as a professional (Figure 2). The two most inner circles in the Figure depict the basic necessities, training, and professionalism of science. Here, traditional scientific labs may still have a role, but the networks of peer-to-peer collaborators that span both within and outside of institutions are emphasized.

I like this conceptualization - it’s definitely time to expand beyond narrowness of view. I’m also partial towards the emphasis being on the edges of a network, and not the individual nodes.

Basic necessities (i.e., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) are fundamental to any human livelihood, and certainly for a scientist to be able to flourish. To truly allow independent scientists to develop, a strong set of progressive social policies, such as universal health care, basic income, and high-quality free education, are needed to strengthen the core of the ecosystem66,67.

Yep - I feel this is a core challenge to address.

Overall, the ecosystem model emphasizes that there is no right way to become a scientist.

I am very partial to this view in light of the fact that I have a very untraditional background - some would say no background :slight_smile: .

At a larger scale, some independent scientists have obtained venture capital funding to pursue biomedical research71,72, such as Perlara in San Francisco, which operates as a public benefit “B-corporation”.

Wow, small world. I actually reached out to Ethan on LinkedIn about a year ago - I was deeply saddened by the news they were shutting down. Though I look again now and they are in reboot?! My son was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis 2 years ago (he has made a remarkable recovery), and I am all too familiar with the shortcomings of the rare disease funding model.

I could go on quoting the paper - but I would have to quote everything and say I agree with it :slight_smile:

So how to go about figuring out the implementation details for Box 8? Is this a/the starting point? I think this is what I was driving towards in the topic proposal at the Unconference. I also really like the idea of writing a new cultural narrative and the outline in that section.


I have been meaning to read this paper for a while - I’ll come back to this in a few days when I’ve done so and can comment properly. Though after reading Grants quotes, I think I’m going to be similarly impressed.


I enjoyed reading this paper a lot, nice work @alex.lancaster and Ronin co-authors. It almost feels like a ‘scientific ecosystem’ manifesto (a la GNU).

While we have emphasised existing grassroots movements and trends, this is not because we do not need reform of our institutional practice of science—we certainly do. However, we believe that social and structural changes are often initiated outside institutions, and these efforts can catalyse internal reforms.

I tend to agree with that starting change from outside the existing system will be easier (see also Inadequate Equilibria for a game-theoretic discussion of how academia is stuck in a Nash Equilibria maximising for prestige). While I expect that alternate/independent academic movement that Ronin and IGDORE are part of seem primed to lead this change, I’ve also seen strong interest in alternate research formats from NGOs (particularly from orgs in the Effective Altruism space, e.g. Rethink Priorities, Centre on Long-Term Risk, ALLFED - I wouldn’t be surprised if some disease-specific and environmental charities were also moving in this direction). As former industrial laboratories (e.g. Bell Labs, Xerox PARC) apparently had quite strong connections to universities (described in Cycles of Invention and Discovery), it could also be possible that companies with a long-term R&D outlook could move back towards an integrative research model. I suspect that traditional Universities may be among the slowest and most resistant to join a broader scientific ecosystem.

I suspect that modern monetary theory (MMT) could have a part to play here. I’m far from an expert on MMT, but I found a news article on Australia’s economic response to the pandemic helpful:

Free money? In March, the [Australian] Government took out a 12-year loan worth $1.2bn dollars, at an interest rate of 0.8185 per cent. Given the current inflation rate (the rate at which money loses its value) is around 1.8 per cent, when 2032 rolls around the Government will effectively pay less than $1.2bn it originally borrowed to pay off the debt.

While MMT is a strategy applied at a national economic level, I wonder if there are ways that similar strategies could also be used to provide income security for scientists? Scientific development is generally recognised as being a major (if not the largest) contributor to economic growth, and so it actually surprises me that isn’t a wider array of economic mechanisms to fund scientific research. @surya, can you comment on this further?

Many postdocs and adjunct scientists already have the majority of tools that they need to do independent science, such as deep training and understanding of their field, a body of work that demonstrates their scientific ability, pre-existing networks of colleagues with similar intellectual interests, and the Internet to collaborate and share. By moving beyond the existing pipeline model of academic science, the ecosystem vision provides the space, flexibility, and diversity that science needs to be more responsive to both local and broader complex scales affecting science.

I think that I was quite lucky in that after moving internationally, I quickly realised that I didn’t need to have a formal academic position to do research, and so I just tried to start doing it. However, I think many ex-academics do feel like they essentially feel that they need the ‘legitimacy’ of a University position to give them permission to do research. As noted in the article, this may largely be due to the restricted range of careers that senior academics currently promote to their students, and I think that the main way that this can be overcome is by independent researchers demonstrating that non-traditional research paths are both viable and competitive options compared to mainstream academia.


with regards to mmt, as i said previously, governments in resource-rich countries should and could:

  1. provide job and income security to ALL their citizens

  2. provide high (middle-to-upper class) income to ALL scientists/scholars/researchers (s/s/r)

the first ‘ALL’ is easy, as it is inclusive…

now, the second ‘ALL’ is hard, as must define who qualifies as s/s/r. i believe the definition could be different for different countries, so the citizens of those countries should deliberate on this. :slight_smile:


Also, how about this for a new paradigm… :slight_smile:


Thanks for all the discussion and feedback from Gavin, Grant and Surya. I am glad it is providing some useful jumping off points for discussion. The MMT connection is particularly intriguing. I will follow-up more soon.

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Looking forward to the discussion… Check out the thread on ‘rethinking university finance’ too… :slight_smile:

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sorry the delay in responding, Grant.

Yes, this is part of the socialization process that normalizes exploitation under the guise of “doing what you love”. Many of the people who talk about it “not being a 9-5 job” already have a comfortable permanent position. It would be one thing if you were really working on your own project that you completely managed yourself. In my experience, most grad students and postdocs are rarely in this position. Much of the time they are working on projects where the lion’s share of the credit will go to their boss.

Yes, I feel knowledge production is essentially relational, the unique nature of the interaction between any two individuals is where things happen. The typical model emphasizes a kind of directed acyclic graph, where knowledge is transferred down from the faculty to apprentices in a very hierarchical one-way process. Obviously that is one way that mentorship happens, but with a diversity of individuals coming into the system from different education backgrounds and ages, the process can just as easily go the other way.

Obviously it’s always been possible to do science outside the “ivory tower”, but it’s really only recently that we have the tools to make that happen.

So glad to hear about your son! Yes, Perlera shutdown happened after our paper was published. I actually met up with Ethan in SF in about 2015, we had lunch and I got a bit of an insight into Perlera’s model (I think then it was still called the Perlstein Lab). I was interested in talking to him about Ronin and how to make “indie science” work in general.

I think the cultural narrative is actually the hardest in the long-term. “Careerism” and “climbing the ladder” is so baked into traditional academia. But I think that things were already shifting before Covid-19, and I think that the work-from-home and not being at a “brick-and-mortar” place is starting to be established as a new norm.

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Yes, I did have GNU in the back of my mind a little when writing this. :slight_smile: The history of this is that it actually started it’s life as a somewhat rant-y letter-to-the-editor response to a Nature news&views piece (The “The future of the postdoc.” by Powell that we cited). I submitted it to Nature, Science and PLOS Biology, and got knocked back from all them, maybe it was too radical for 2015. (PLOS did send it out for review, and but for reviewer #3 :slight_smile: it might have actually got published). It sat around for a while, then I started sharing my draft, and got some co-authors interested, and we began to flesh it out more, bringing in some more perspectives than just me. We figuring that laying a positive vision could be more useful in the long-run than a rant (although some of it comes through, as you probably picked up).

Thanks for the links to those other organizations and ideas. We are supposed to at some point do a v2 revision, so I may incorporate them into that! That Inadequate Equilibria looks very interesting! I agree that universities will be the most resistant. The corporate model most of them run on means that in order to maintain their expensive and top-heavy administration, they need to maximize their grant money, and are likely to view any other organizations as being participants in a zero-sum game. It’s a vicious circle too: the more they get grant money, the more they need admin to manage/obtain it, which means that admin gets larger and more expensive, which needs more grant money…

MMT (and other related ideas) do seem like the way to go. I’m also relatively new to this. My sense is that there are two issues. (1) getting enough income to individual scientists so they can continue to do what they do, (2) getting funding for equipment, facilities etc. Right now, grants are often used for both, especially as permanent tenured-positions become much rarer, and many places (especially medical schools run on “soft money”). We need to decouple those things. A UBI would (partially) solve (1) and then funding would be about money to actually do the research (2). It’s my understanding that is what grants used to be mainly for (say 20-30 years ago), before institutions figured out that they could get most of the people doing the work (grad students and postdocs) run on precarious short-term contracts by dangling a (false) promise of a permanent job. I don’t think this was done maliciously by uni administrators, it’s a been a slow process over decades, and largely driven by the incentives which starved the public sector since neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s.

What excites me most about a UBI is that it could potentially release a huge latent pool of creativity that would be good for science and society as a whole. All the incentives in hiring and promotion are towards those who will get more grant money, which means a lot of interesting ideas are left on the table (or in the desk drawer). Science requires a long-tail, but the pursuit of fundable projects means that the tail gets truncated. UBI could release that long-tail again. And more small-scale research becomes possible, meaning that we could explore more of the knowledge “landscape”.

Yes, giving people permission is part of the “show-not-tell” aspect of Ronin and IGDORE, I think. Buckminster Fuller said it beautifully:


I know that some forms of MMT emphasize a job guarantee. I’m becoming more partial to a calibrated UBI as proposed by folks like Alex Howlett (https://medium.com/@alexhowlett/introduction-to-consumer-monetary-theory-78905b0606ca). He is calling it Consumer Monetary Theory (CMT), which is similar in many respects to MMT, but differs in that the level of the UBI would be calibrated to be as high as possible before inflation and other bad effects kick in. I like this in the context of science because it would continue to be universal (like point #1), but because it could be reasonably high, you wouldn’t necessarily need to have a second category (like point #2) above.

The minute you introduce some kind of threshold or gatekeeping (like deciding who qualifies as a scholar/scientist), it becomes problematic. (Just in the same way that means-testing for welfare can be problematic because you get perverse incentives where it’s better to stay on welfare than get a job, and you also have to employ a huge bureaucracy to sort out the claims).

In the CMT model, jobs only exist to get specific work done, rather than a means to get income to people. As Howlett says:

I like this conception. I also like this model in the scientific context because there may continue to exist classic jobs for certain kinds of science that are resource intensive. And since projects might come and go, those jobs don’t have to exist forever. If the UBI was high enough, it might be good enough for many scientists to be happy joining a Ronin or IGDORE-like institution and not need to pursue those tenured jobs anymore. My hunch is that there many scientists in this category (even among those who are already tenured) that would be very happy to leave the grind of running a lab, and are only in those positions in the first place because there had been no other (up until now) options.


I like this too! It’s another parallel way that could pursued in conjunction with MMT/CMT-like approaches.

Thanks @alex.lancaster. i’ve read carefully all your replies. :slight_smile:

With regards to mmt, it’s a whole ‘thing’ (‘system’/‘paradigm’/etc.). To get you up to speed really quickly, see this short animated video by one of its originators, warren mosler:

Would love it if you and i, and others here (@grant, @Gavin, etc.) could zoom/google meet for an hour to discuss further. More fun and faster that way, i think.

Thanks again and see ya. :slight_smile:


I came across the Flourishing Futures from COVID-19 report from the Foresight Institute


It seems to touch on a lot of ideas adjacent to this discussion and might be of interest:

This report groups ideas for change in the sections health, investment & philanthropy, default institutions, governance architectures, coordination technologies, civil responsibility, sense-making systems, global resilience, planetary ecosystem, diverse worlds, culture & arts, flourishing.

@surya sure a zoom call about this would be fun. It would be faster to find out what our common points of interest are.

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@alex.lancaster, thanks for the comments! I think all of us here have a pretty cohesive perspective on this. I have some more thoughts that need to coalesce, looking forward to discussing further.

@surya, sounds good, will be fun to discuss! I’m on Pacific Standard Time.

Is it possible to zoom this friday? My proposed time is 19:30 WIB (GMT+7). Click below to find the time in your location and propose alternative times acdordingly. :slight_smile:


These days i am able to wake at any moment due to my mind’s preoccupation with indonesian economic recovery and resurgence, so i should be fine at any agreed time between us, as long as it doesn’t clash with my other scheduled activity.

Based on this thread, foresee a fruitful and fast-paced conversation ahead, so looking forward to that. :slight_smile:

@surya, @grant, @Gavin

Friday could work, but I need to check and get back to you. I’d like to also invite my co-authors, @arika.virapongse and Anne Thessen (not on the IGDORE forum).

Looking forward to friday. Also see my answer to one of @marilia 's thread. :slight_smile:

Thanks everyone, for your interest in our paper! Not sure how this response works as a reply via email…Friday could work for me. I might be multi-tasking because I’ll be on kid duty, but can most likely join. - Arika

8:30am ET is a little early for me, and for @arika.virapongse I think that’s 6:30am MT.

Yep, later Friday would work for me.