Montclair resident Jon F. Wilkins has launched an organization and website to serve what he calls a burgeoning new group of professionals who are pursuing academic ship and/or research independent of a university position or similar affiliation.
The Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, with a tagline of “Reinventing Academia,” is “devoted to facilitating and promoting scholarly research outside the confines of traditional academic research institutions.” The organization hopes to “build a more efficient, inclusive, egalitarian, and creative future for scholarship.”
Several dozen independent scholars are already affiliated with the site, in fields ranging from the familiar — biology, anthropology, religious studies, higher education and population genetics — to the more obscure, such as evolutionary toxicology, media archaeology, microbial ecology and evolution, transpersonal-phenomenological psychology, and many others.
Wilkins and his wife, children’s author Lizzie Foley, moved to Montclair in 2011. He established the Ronin Institute in February of 2012.
We sat down with Jon at Terra Tea in the Montclair Public Library recently, to find out more.
Baristanet: What was the impetus for starting Ronin?
Wilkins: The initial vision was just me doing my research independently. Then I started writing about it on my blog, and people started emailing to say they wanted to be involved, that we needed something like this. There are so many underemployed PhDs in the U.S. — tens of thousands – who earned their PhD in a field they care a lot about, but the rules of academia say if you are not at a university, you can’t play. Personally, at the time I started Ronin, I had some grant funding and my wife has just sold her book, so the time was right to do something risky.
Baristanet: I get the sense that this model is rather uncommon.
Baristanet: Who can this work for?
Wilkins: Researchers like me, for example, who need very little beyond a new laptop every few years. I work in theoretical evolutionary biology, computer programs and math modeling of the evolutionary processes. For someone like that, and others in the social sciences, math sciences and humanities – you need your brain, library access and computing.
Even some folks who also do laboratory work want to do so independently and often they can by having have a collaborator who is at a university; or in an urban area, one can rent lab space.
Our organization will be supporting those who can work out of their house, who have access to colleagues, books and libraries (and you no longer need even to be at the university library physically; it’s all online).
Baristnet: What’s your professional research background?
Wilkins: I completed a PhD in biophysics at Harvard in 2002 and did a three year post there with the Society of Fellows, an interdisciplinary independent post-doctorate. Then I took a job at the Sante Fe Institute, a small interdisciplinary research institute with no students, not connected to a university.
Baristanet: So you were a bit outside the traditional university teaching/research model already.
Wilkins: And I realized I did not want a faculty job. I decided I wanted to continue to be able to work on whatever interdisciplinary projects I wanted to.
There is a lot of pressure on researchers in a university to bring in big money grants, so as a researcher you then have to design projects that are higher funded, and certainly the reputation of an institution has an effect, so we are going to be fighting the P.R. battle. For $1 million research project, the tendency is for a company or government agency to give it to Yale. But, they could give $500,000 to an independent researcher who can get the same work done because they don’t have that university overhead and administrative fees.
I’ll be applying for new grants soon myself, and doing it through Ronin.
Baristanet: What kind of researcher or academic scholar would be well-served by Ronin Institute?
Wilkins: Those doing fractional research, who have left academia and maybe have a non-research corporate job now or are entrepreneurs or a stay-at-home-parent, but who still want to pursue research perhaps 10-15 hours a week or on summer breaks, and just need enough money to fund the research itself (not their salaries), to cover travel to conferences or materials. Some have active research projects, others are in transition; some people just can’t move geographically to take that perfect research or academic position.
There is a huge need out there to help highly educated people who want to use their expertise and contribute knowledge to the world, but who do not have a position at a university—or have a university job that does not allow them to apply for their own grant. We have one researcher who works in experimental neuroscience; he had a university position which he left to care for an ill relative. But he can still conduct research and make a contribution to his field.
The academic job market has gotten a lot worse the last 10-15 years, so in the earlier part of their careers — pre-tenure track – people are stymied, and there are folks out there trying to create alternative paths to a scholarly career.
Baristanet: Has it been a smooth or bumpy start-up?
Wilkins: It’s taking longer than I’d hoped, but everything takes four times as long as it ought to take, so why should starting a nonprofit be any different? It’s been a very interesting process and I’ve done everything myself – bylaws, nonprofit accounting, etc. I enjoy learning all of it.
Baristanet: Are there other organizations like yours already operating?
Wilkins: Well, there are organizations sort of like this. My vision was based on The Fresh Pond Research Institute, located outside of Boston, which has helped secure research funding from the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. The founder is now on my board.
Baristanet: You moved to Montclair from the Southwest. Any particular reason?
Wilkins: My wife is a children’s writer, and we have a 10 year old son. She wanted to be close to New York City, and some people at her publisher (Penguin) said don’t choose a town until you look at Montclair. We drove over here and knew it was where we wanted to live! We’ve been really happy here and thrilled with the schools.
Those who wish to learn more can follow the Ronin blog and contact jon.f.wilkins at RoninInstitute dot org.