Scholarly Heaven

Amateurs have always been a large part of the scientific community. In some fields, such as entomology, the majority of research is carried out by non-professionals. Now, with the advent of the internet, DIY movements and online amateur communities, this reality is more and more visible. Articles from Harvard Magazine to Wired acknowledge the growing trend of “citizen science”, yet I believe there lacks a “seat of knowledge” made for twenty-first century’s amateur scientists, a place different from usual universities and research institutes.
To further advance humankind’s knowledge, embracing “amateur” research is mandatory. Throughout history, amateurs had places to interact with professional scholars, as Peter Burke wrote in A Social History Of Knowledge: ” : “Informal conversation must always have been important in intellectual exchanges, but the settings for such activities have changed over the centuries. In London in the late seventeenth century, some of the new coffeehouses were known to be centres of discussion on particular topics, from literature to natural philosophy. In Cambridge in the 1870s, the ‘laboratory tea’ became an institution. Even more important in the history of knowledge in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the pub. Individuals who wanted to discuss natural science – artisan botanists in the nineteenth-century Lancashire, for instance – found their way to public houses. Oxford pubs were central to the development of British anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s, under the guidance first of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and then of Edward Evans-Pritchard. In Cambridge, it was in the Eagle that, over a doubtless semi-liquid lunch in 1953, Francis Crick announced the discovery of the structure of DNA. In Geneva, by contrast, it was in the cafeteria at CERN in 1990 that Tim Berners-Lee christened the World Wide Web. In Silicon Valley, ‘late-evening conversations at the Walker’s Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill in Mountain View’ are said to have done ‘more for the diffusion of technological innovation than most seminars in Stanford’ “. We can find analogies between theses places and online forums/communities which give the opportunity for amateur and professional researchers to discuss and work together,  however a more formal, physical space is needed for both amateurs and professionals to collaborate. In the late sixteenth century, such a place existed in Europe – the academia -, an institution where meetings and discussions took place, where respected scholars from universities and amateurs gathered to advance scientific knowledge. In his book, Burke insisted on the fact that “Forms of sociability had – and still have – their influence on the distribution and even the production of knowledge”, thus this new “seat of knowledge” will aim at recreating the kind of settings permitting scientists from all horizons to come together and work on their research, to discuss and benefit from twenty-first century habits like DIY and Open Source/Open Science.
We can think of this new place as a new incarnation of the Institute for Advanced Study, or of MIT’s AI Laboratory, a Shangri-La for scientists, where anyone wanting to contribute to science can come and where competence is the only criteria for hiring. I call this place the Scholarly Heaven.


What would the Scholarly Heaven look like? I imagine it as a mix between the Googleplex and a Hackerspace, like Paris’ La Paillasse: a friendly, cosy space where you have access to tools and a like minded community, where you can work and interact with others, but also eat (with free food on campus) and play, or give a lecture, or start a hackathon.
The Googleplex itself is modeled after some of academia’s jewels, like the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), which Oppenheimer – who was its director for nearly twenty years – described as “an intellectual hotel”, designed to take care of scientists so that they are in the best environment possible to work. Google made its campus an IAS for engineers, and hackerspaces around the globe create this kind of setup for the DIY community. The Scholarly Heaven will be part hackerspace, part institution like Google or the IAS. It will offer the same freedom a hackerspace allows while maintaining a high level of excellence in research and engineering by hiring the best members of the community.
I’ll talk about funding later, but we can imagine the Scholarly Heaven to be a full fledged research institute, employing top-notch researchers, equipped with state-of-the-art tools like a research ship or a particle accelerator, while at the same time allowing hobbyists to use these equipments to conduct their own research and perhaps make some amazing breakthroughs along the way.
As an Internet Era institution, the Scholarly Heaven will also be an online community for people to communicate and work together anywhere in the world. Michael Nielsen, in The future of science and his book Reinventing Discovery envisioned such an online agora: “Like Einstein, we have a small group of trusted collaborators with whom we exchange questions and ideas when we are stuck. Unfortunately, most of the time even our collaborators aren’t that much help. They may point us in the right direction, but rarely do they have exactly the expertise we need. Is it possible to scale up this conversational model, and build an online collaboration market to exchange questions and ideas, a sort of collective working memory for the scientific community?
It is natural to be skeptical of this idea, but an extremely demanding creative culture already exists which shows that such a collaboration market is feasible – the culture of free and open source software. Scientists browsing for the first time through the development forums of open source programming projects are often shocked at the high level of discussion. They expect amateur hour at the local karaoke bar; instead, they find professional programmers routinely sharing their questions and ideas, helping solve each other’s problems, often exerting great intellectual effort and ingenuity. Rather than hoarding their questions and ideas, as scientists do for fear of being scooped, the programmers revel in swapping them. Some of the world’s best programmers hang out in these forums, swapping tips, answering questions and participating in the conversation.”

At the Scholarly Heaven, paid researchers would research whatever it is that they find interesting, as long as they contribute to science; which is similar to what the IAS expects its scholars to do. However, IAS’ scholars can do literally whatever they want: they have no assignments whatsoever. Some people have questioned this approach, and although a “publish or perish” pressure wouldn’t be welcomed at the Scholarly Heaven, paid researchers would be required to actually share what they are working on (but in a very simple, informal way: perhaps make a video or write a blog post on their research topic once in a while).
Unlike the IAS, where only theoretical research is undertaken, the Scholarly Heaven would embrace both theoretical and experimental works, since both contribute in different ways to improve our knowledge of the Universe.
Researchers would be (like at the IAS) free from the grant-seeking pressure most scientists are familiar with nowadays. In a recent article from The Verge, researchers from the IAS agreed that it “offers them something that other schools don’t: freedom from research expectations and the associated financial strain. ‘Nobody tells you what to think about, or says, “I’ll only give you money if you think about how to solve this problem” ‘ [Helmut] Hofer says ‘It’s harder and harder to get money and here we don’t deal so much with that stress’ “.
In fact, older institutions, like Pavia University, understood that freedom from financial pressure was necessary for scientists to accomplish their best works: Pavia gave Galileo Galilei a job without teaching nor specific research requirements.
The Library of Alexandria, perhaps the most famous example of a Scholarly Heaven, gave its scholars free rein to pursue their own interests. The Ptolemies understood what scientific freedom was and the fruits it could bear twenty-four centuries ago, yet today’s universities and research institutes are putting more and more pressure and constraints on their staff!
Except this “show what you’re working on once in a while” requirement, the Scholarly Heaven wouldn’t impose any presence or teaching requirements (though the later would be encouraged).
In Alexandria’s Library, teaching wasn’t a requirement either, as Matthew Battles wrote in Library, an unquiet history: “Although it was meant to attract scholars and thinkers, no formal teaching program was adopted. This was one of its chief benefits to scholars; for then as now, intellectuals found teaching as much a burden as a calling. The royal pension freed scholars from having to advertise for pupils to walk around with, while the heaps of scrolls offered them inexhaustible opportunities for their work”, and yet some scholars did teach, because they wanted to. I expect a similar thing would happen at the Scholarly Heaven – and those who teach by passion rather than constraint teach the best courses.
To sum up what life would be like for paid researchers at the Scholarly Heaven, I’ll quote The Verge article again: “faculty members don’t teach, scholars don’t need to publish, and nobody will tell anybody what they should and shouldn’t investigate. Everybody at IAS has carte-blanche to do whatever it is that they want.”
One requirement though for researchers: embracing Open Science. At the Scholarly Heaven, researchers would publish their papers in Open Access and post their data in an open repository. The future of research institutions the Scholarly Heaven represents would be more open, and so would be its works.
The Scholarly Heaven would offer online and on-campus courses, which everyone regardless of his/her background could take and complete. Again, the Scholarly Heaven would offer the best of both worlds: like MOOCs, its courses would be open to everyone; and like universities, it would deliver grades; but on a per-course basis. It would revolutionize higher education by allowing people to choose their courses and thus build a “custom CV”, and it would free students of the burden of uninteresting courses. Every student would thus be free to pursue his/her interests, and to be rewarded for it. Courses would be a small part of the education the Scholarly Heaven would deliver, and they would be totally optional. Instead, students would be encouraged to start their own projects, like I suggested in a previous essay.

So basically three types of people would come to the Scholarly Heaven: amateurs, students, and paid researchers. Everyone would be free to come and do research or take a course, or teach one (though the content of the course will need to be checked by the faculty – or the online community – to make sure what is taught is correct).
For post-docs looking for tenure, the Scholarly Heaven would provide them freedom to work as hard as they wish to prove themselves worthy of the position they’re seeking at a university. They would be able to dedicate 100% of their time to their research, while at regular universities post-docs have to teach and lose a lot of time doing so.
The Scholarly Heaven would ultimately hire researchers to constitute a permanent faculty. I described what it would be like for paid researchers to work there above, but I haven’t defined what I mean by “paid researchers”. No need to have fancy PhDs to get hired as a researcher. At the Scholarly Heaven, competence and experience are key. “Amateurs” can be as good as professionals, even if they don’t have the same curriculum.  To be hired as a researcher, one would have to show his passion, knowledge and experience, perhaps by being interviewed by a group of fellow scholars who would review the application and previously published papers.
MIT’s AI Lab used to welcome amateurs, though they only hired college-trained scientists. As well as welcoming amateurs to work along with professionals, the Scholarly Heaven would also hire the best of them to join the ranks of the professionals. Justin Peters for Slate described MIT’s AI Lab in these words: “the AI Lab was a sort of programming utopia that drew computer enthusiasts from all around – a Brook Farm for the digital age. It was a flat, non-hierarchical system, where you were judged on the caliber of your work, not age or status or title or educational background. ‘There were people that were hangers on, that were not real students or staff members. They just were there, and they were helping’, says Brewster Kahle, an AI Lab affiliate in the early 1980s. ‘And that openness was very creative and wonderful.’ ” The Scholarly Heaven would take this philosophy a step further by hiring people regardless of age, status, title or educational background – taking only competence into account.


How could the Scholarly Heaven come into existence? Before talking about funding, it is worth noting that the Scholarly Heaven would be a lean organization that would reject bureaucracy.
The IAS used to operate in a very lean way, though today it seems bureaucracy has taken over the management of the place, as one researcher complained in Who Got Einstein’s Office: “When Oppenheimer was the director he didn’t spend all his time running the place. He used to do physics half the time. He used to have one secretary, a business manager, and a lady who did the housing arrangements. Now there’s a director, and an associate director, and each of them has assistants plus secretaries, sometimes two secretaries. This is poisonous. After a while the administration lives for itself, and the faculty becomes a side-issue.” We need to prevent this from happening at the Scholarly Heaven, and I expect its administration to be composed of a small team of scientists, not bureaucrats.
Let’s talk about money now. Funding for the Scholarly Heaven could come from three main sources:

-individuals, in the form of membership fees, donations (some wealthy individuals like tech billionaires would be welcomed)

-companies, who could benefit from the research made at the Scholarly Heaven and hire talents there

-tuition fees: perhaps making all courses free but taking the test paying, like many MOOCs are doing?
A big endowment will be necessary in order to establish the Scholarly Heaven (Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin?). In 1988, when Who Got Einstein’s Office was published, the IAS had an operating budget of “over $10 million per year, which it pays out of its endowment, currently valued at well over $100 million, and out of the income derived from its investments [since then, both the endowment and annual budget have gone up]. The rate of return on its investments varies from year to year, but recently it has averaged about 17 percent per annum. In fiscal year 1984/85, though, the annual rate of return was 26,9 percent. Unlike other utopias envisioned by idealists down through the ages, this one is not afraid of money.” Definitely the kind of financial situation I wish the Scholarly Heaven to be in.
The IAS is also supported by very wealthy individuals, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt or European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi, who sit on its board of trustees. This kind of continuous support would be welcomed too, but let’s not forget the thousands of amateur scientists and science enthusiasts who together can contribute huge amounts of money and brain power!

I think the Scholarly Heaven represents the future of research institutions. Could we try to make this idea a reality?


4 thoughts on “Scholarly Heaven

  1. I do not agree with “though the content of the course will need to be checked by the faculty – or the online community – to make sure what is taught is correct”. Sorry, but if whole class of students cannot discover that what is being thought is incorrect, then they are learning in a wrong way. In scholarly heaven students would check after the professor and say if something is wrong.

    1. That’s a good point and certainly this measure is just a protection to prevent creationists or climate change deniers from trying to “teach” their beliefs to students

  2. In addition of having just researchers (amateur or not) and administration, you also need staff. Or simpler: research is often done in teams, if you want results you cannot really be individual researcher in many fields. And you need funding and people for that.

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