Complexity Explorer Santa Fe Institute

25 Jan 2015
Institute Interview

Jon Wilkins talks about the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship


In this post we feature Jon Wilkins, a theoretical evolutionary biologist and the founder of the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship.  Jon received a BA in Physics and PhD in Biophysics from Harvard, as well as a Junior Fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows.  Jon has been a member of both the resident and external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.  His research interests include genomic imprinting, coalescent theory, statistical inference, and the origins of robustness and epistasis in biological systems. 

In 2011, Jon founded the Ronin Institute, which currently supports scholars across a diversity of fields and is devoted to “facilitating and promoting scholarly research outside the confines of traditional academic research institutions.”        

Q: What prompted you to start the Ronin Institute?

A:  As an academic, I was rather spoiled.  I had a freelance postdoc, after which I spent six years at Santa Fe Institute.  The standard next step after that would be a faculty job at a university.  But to me, the idea of going back into a traditional Biology department seemed sort of horrible.   Not being able to have the freedom to follow whatever sorts of questions I wanted was a big part of it for me personally.  Another negative for the "traditional academic path" is the financial structure in universities.  Instead of being required to raise a lot of money to support an enormous bureaucracy, I wanted to be able to think about what funds I actually need in order to do my work.   All I really need is a salary, a little bit of money for a new computer every few years, and a little to cover the necessary level of accounting and grant reporting.  One can do all of that pretty cheaply.  My idea was to figure out how to do that without becoming a cog in a gigantic bureaucracy.

When I first started Ronin, my goal was to pursue my own research interests.   So I set out to create enough of a structure to allow me to do that.  And as I wrote about it on my blog, people contacted me asking how they could get involved.   

Looking into this, I realized how much academia over-produces PhDs relative to the number of faculty jobs available.  There are a lot of people out there who have tremendous expertise and passion for a topic, but who are not going to get a faculty position due to various constraints: there are not enough faculty positions; maybe you have a spouse and it is impossible to manage two careers at the same time; maybe you have a sick parent; maybe you took several years off to raise children; perhaps you want to spend time with your kids and that desire is not consistent with the 80-hour-per-week tenure track route.   There are many reasons that talented and capable people might not fit into the traditional academic mold.  These are people who need a venue and a different way to contribute.

I thought, "What can we do to create a mechanism by which these people can continue to participate?" The purpose of the Ronin Institute is to find ways to lower those barriers.

Q:  Who are the people currently involved with Ronin?

We have about sixty research scholars who are now affiliated with the institute.  Most are people who do not have traditional academic positions.  A small number do have positions, but are interested in helping us think about alternative models for how to be an academic.  The idea is to create a place for people who would otherwise be excluded from doing research by virtue of not being in one of these traditional positions. 

In some cases, it seems like the benefit of being affiliated with Ronin is almost psychological, in that it gives you “permission” to keep doing research.  In academic culture people spend a lot of time thinking about status.  “Is your university more important than my university?” and that sort of thing.  If you are part of the traditional valuation system and you are not affiliated with a university or similar institution, many people will think, “You are not worth my time to even talk to or think about.”  So one of the simple things the Ronin Institute offers is an institutional address, an e-mail address, and a title.   Then maybe the people you meet at conferences or contact to talk about a potential collaboration will at least pay attention to you rather than ignoring you or deleting your email under the assumption that you are no one whatsoever. 

Thus the first stage of creating the Ronin Institute was to create a space in which people who were already inherently highly motivated had some structure that would facilitate their participation in the research community.  Our current efforts focus on finding interesting ways to generate funding or make funding available to people who are non-traditional scholars.  For example, we have talked and written about the idea of “fractional scholarship”. 

Q: What is fractional scholarship?

Here’s one example. Some of our affiliated scholars have left academia and now have some other full-time job that more or less pays their bills, but they would like to be able to spend, say, ten hours per week doing research.  What these people need are mechanisms to get funding that would allow them to travel to conferences and other relatively minor expenses of doing research. 

As a second example, suppose a person left academia to have kids, and now their kids are in school.  This person might now be ready to get back into research, but they would still like to pick their kids up from school every day.  That kind of situation—doing research only 20 or 30 hours per week—is not really possible right now in traditional academia.  Saying, “I would like to work half-time doing academic research and I am perfectly happy to make less money than a full-time researcher would,” makes a lot of sense to me.  But funding mechanisms for such situations do not really exist right now. 

There are tens of thousands of under-employed PhDs in the United States.  It seems like a real failing on the part of society: these people are passionate about some area and can contribute to it, but society cannot find a way to make that work.  At Ronin, we are currently exploring creative ways to enable such people to do this kind of “fractional scholarship”. 

Q: Besides an institutional affiliation, what does Ronin offer to its scholars?

I ask research scholars what it is that they want out of a career.  I ask, “What would you define as success? And what do you need in terms of support?” and then figure out what we can do to help make that happen.  This is different than the highly top-down approach that most institutions and universities take, in which what success looks like is laid-out and you need to strive to achieve it. 

Think about a person who wants to work twenty hours a week doing research, and say we are able to find funding mechanisms that would provide them with $30,000 a year to do that work.  Now compare that with the amount of money it takes to support a full professor at a university:  typically, more like $300,000 a year, including benefits, overhead and so on.  Given that the person in academia costs ten times as much, how much time are they actually spending doing research?  It is probably actually less than twenty hours a week because they are doing lab management personnel tasks, serving on committees, doing bureaucratic work, teaching, etc.  One of my collaborators told me that he feels that the time he actually gets to think about science is from 1:00 to 2:00 in the morning, after the rest of his family has gone to bed. 

Looking at the return on investment, let’s compare: We as a society are going to spend $300,000 a year to support this person who can maybe spend ten hours a week doing science versus spending one-tenth as much to support someone who can actually spend more time doing research.  That seems to me like a much better allocation of our societal resources.

Q: Have you had success in securing that kind of fractional funding?

A: We are just getting started with people submitting grants. We also have a few projects that we are kicking around and are talking to some people trying to get some philanthropic money to start them.  This is all relatively new.  We only recently got the “minimum viable bureaucracy” squared away in order to run the institute, so now we are turning towards expanding our efforts.  A big part of our goal is to come up with non-traditional mechanisms to fund scholars, and to push on the culture to make this a more acceptable route to doing research. The cultural perceptions have gotten a little better recently because the educational crisis has become so bad.  Certainly ten years ago, it was pretty universal in the sciences—even in biology—that people who left academia, say, to do pharmaceutical work, were always talked about as failures.  Everyone would sort of whisper when they spoke about them, as though they had died. 

Q: What are the most exciting areas of scholarship currently being pursued at the Ronin Institute?

A: We have people who are interested in the evolution of aging.  Other people work on information theoretic approaches to biology.  We have also got a couple of archaeologists who are now working alongside the population genetics researchers.  We are trying to see if these two groups can find areas of commonality in topics related to human origins and human pre-history, which is inherently a very, very interdisciplinary set of questions.  There are also people who are doing literature, history, philosophy of religion…. I am out of my depth in these areas, but I always think, “Well, that sounds really cool.” 

Q: How do you think interdisciplinary collaboration impacts innovative thinking about problems?

A: In a typical academic department, everyone mostly agrees what the interesting and important problems are, everyone agrees what the “correct” way to approach them is, and everyone agrees what an acceptable answer would look like.  When you are in that sort of environment, there are a lot of questions that it never even occurs to you to ask.  This kind of environment works well for taking incremental steps, because there are a lot of people with expertise who are right there to help you do that.  But in terms of stepping back and saying, “What if I stand over here and look at my problem or my whole field from this other angle?” — that sort of thing that is really hard to do when you are immersed in a group of people who share all of your training and assumptions.

Q: How can people learn more about the Ronin Institute?

A. By going to our website:  For more information people can e-mail us at:

(Answers were edited for brevity.)

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