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Additionally, an outdated mentality still persists that the path to faculty tenureship requires putting science ahead of all of life’s other priorities, and this can have a severely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.

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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:

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

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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.

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