The independent researcher
June 27, 2018
Adarsh Pandit recently introduced me to the concept of the “gentleman scientist”: a researcher who funds their work independently. After digging around a bit, I was fascinated to learn that independent researchers were fairly common in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many researchers were personally wealthy or had access to deep pockets. Charles Darwin pursued scientific collection as a hobby, and his first voyage on HMS Beagle was funded by his family. James Prescott Joule, after whom the joule is named, was “scientifically self-taught”, doing research in his off-hours at the family brewery. And in the 1930s, Alfred Lee Loomis used his Wall Street wealth to start a laboratory in his mansion, nicknamed “The Palace of Science”, where physicists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi collaborated.
These days, if you say you work in research, most people assume you work in academia. But it’s sort of odd that we assume you need someone’s permission to do research. There’s no reason that universities need to be the gatekeepers of exploring and developing new ideas.
Sometimes, a lack of training can produce even more interesting results. I was reminded of this recently after hearing a talk by Charles Mann, author of The Wizard and the Prophet. He told the story of Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who developed disease-resistant wheat varieties that are estimated to have prevented over half a billion deaths worldwide. Because Borlaug lacked formal training, he made the mistake of engaging in “shuttle breeding”: transporting wheat to multiple climates to speed up their breeding season. Researchers at the time widely believed this was wrong. But Borlaug, in his naïvete, ended up not only disproving the theory, but accidentally producing wheat varieties that adapted to environments with varying amounts of sunlight.
While reading about independent researchers, I found a 1998 Science article (paywalled here), called “Scientists Who Fund Themselves”, profiling several contemporary researchers who fund their own work.
Interestingly, many of them asked to remain anonymous, partly because they didn’t want people to know they were wealthy, and partly, it seems, because it carried a hint of embarrassment. It’s better to say you’re funded by a big institutional grant than to admit it’s coming out of your savings account.
This is the dark side of independent research. Without external validation - “I teach at Stanford” or “I got a grant from NASA”, it’s hard to convince people that you’re any good at what you do. The same goes for your output: you want peers to acknowledge and review your work, or the signoff of a well-respected journal.
I understand, then, why researchers flock to the safety of institutions. Imagine studying something that nobody else is studying, for reasons you can’t really articulate, without knowing what the outcome of your work will be. For the truly obsessed person, the need for validation isn’t about ego; it’s about sanity. You want to know there’s some meaning behind the dizzying mental labyrinth that you simultaneously can’t escape and also never want to leave.
And yet, independence seems to afford a level of risk and intellectual freedom that every researcher dreams of:
Fifteen years ago, this researcher, then in his late 40s, considered dropping out of science. “I was always well funded,” says the researcher, who asked that his name not be used. “I just disliked the process very much. It finally reached the point, sort of my midlife crisis, where I realized I was spending 60 hours a week in the lab, and spending less than 15 doing what I wanted to do.” Then he slyly grins as he tells the story of how he escaped from the grind that has become modern science: He decided to use his modest savings to play stock markets around the world. Now, he runs a sprawling lab at a major research university, and he funds most of the work himself….“I do science because I enjoy doing science … I don’t want to be forced to justify what I’m doing because it makes better air in submarines, or whatever,” he says.
Research doesn’t have to be expensive
While historic examples of “gentleman scientists” seem to refer to people who were wealthy, independent research doesn’t have to be expensive (depending, of course, on your field). Science interviewed Duke University’s Steven Vogel, who studied biological fluid mechanics:
“If I had $1000 a year to spend on research, I’d be in clover,” says Vogel. “I ask questions like, How do leaves on trees respond to wind? My expenses can be two rolls of film.”
Speaking from my own experience, funding opportunities are often hiding in plain sight, or can be cobbled together from a number of places. I funded my initial research with a grant from the Ford Foundation, without any prior connections or RFPs. We found each other through someone I’d cold emailed. The grants weren’t big, but they were enough, carrying me through the following year until I joined GitHub.
Institutions can also help enable more independent research. I’m lucky to have found an organization, Protocol Labs, that funds research in all sorts of unusual ways. Having tried this both ways, I can say that having a steady salary (and health insurance!) allows me to do much better work than when I was worried about my next source of funding. Likewise, Harvard generously provided me with tools that an independent researcher wouldn’t otherwise get, such as access to their library and resources. Organizations can still provide this type of support, and the benefit of collaborating with likeminded peers, without requiring a formal entry into academia.
Independent research as public service
My first go at independent research wasn’t necessarily easy. I didn’t know independent research was a viable path, and especially not in Silicon Valley, land of builders and shippers. I didn’t know whether I was doing something useful with my time, or whether I was just a crazy person.
A few years later, I’ve realized that the answer to that question doesn’t really matter. Life is short. Do whatever you can’t stop thinking about. Documenting your findings in public (regardless of outcomes!) is a worthy contribution to society, full stop. If you’re doing something new, and you care about understanding the problem, people will pay attention. What’s more, they’ll take your ideas and make them better than you’d ever imagined. And that style of research - living in service to the public - starts to look very different from the bloated, ivory tower models we’ve been accustomed to.
As we develop new ways of funding creative work, via Patreon or actual patrons, I would love to see more people consider independent research. You don’t need a PhD to study something you care about. You don’t need to publish papers in academic journals to become widely respected. You just need a curious mind, a bankroll, and a commitment to learning in public. Producing work that makes other people think, and perhaps change their behavior, is the validation, and it’s enormously satisfying.
I hope more people are inspired to take a leap of faith and pursue the lines of inquiry that consume them. And I hope we’ll see other patrons and organizations stepping up to fund them.