A Fractional Idea

May 7, 2012

A talented Ph.D. candidate labors for years and ultimately gets a doctoral degree in biology. He fails to find a job as a faculty member at a research university and eventually ends up teaching at a high school. But he still yearns to do scholarly research.

A paper released last week by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a body devoted to entrepreneurial ideas, offers a solution for people who once harbored dreams of conducting quality research, but instead ended up working outside the university system doing little or no research. The authors of the paper, Samuel Arbesman and Jon Wilkins, said these scholars, who tend to be underemployed, could be put to work as researchers under a system called “fractional scholarship.”

A fractional scholarship position would involve a researcher, who could be working as a high school teacher, a professor at a liberal arts college or an adjunct, devoting a certain amount of part-time work on a specific question of interest to a freestanding research institute. This institute would take care of the administrative grunt work, help with grant applications, give access to a community of like-minded people and even solicit collaborations with research universities, the authors said. These part-time positions would add research job availability beyond the tight job market for postdocs, and enable those interested to keep their research careers current.

Arbesman, a mathematician, is a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, while Wilkins, formerly a professor of evolutionary biology at the Santa Fe Institute, now heads the Ronin Institute, a nascent organization modeled on the idea of fractional scholarship. The organization will soon apply for nonprofit status and is looking for funding, Wilkins said.

The authors suggest that fractional scholarship could work if an institution or several institutions are created to facilitate such research. “Such an institution would provide an institutional affiliation, a community, help for researchers to apply for grants and publish articles, and much more, while still ensuring independence and the ability to conduct research on one’s own terms,” the paper said. “Grant support and management could be aggregated, with such an institution helping fractional scholars to identify funding opportunities, assemble application materials, and even manage grants.” Funding would be required, of course, to start the venture, and then grant money could sponsor the research, the authors said, leading to more economic growth.

The idea of fractional scholarship is one more pathway among others suggested in recent years  to solve the conundrum of a lack of jobs for those with doctoral degrees. Though the ideas floated in the paper may seem best suited for the sciences, Wilkins said such fractional scholarship could work in the humanities too. "A humanities scholar could do deep theory work and do so relatively independently," Wilkins said.

“The goal of this paper is to get people thinking. We are certainly overproducing Ph.D.s. Many of these people enjoy research but might not belong to the traditional academic world,” Wilkins said. “There is a problem with the way the academic society is currently structured. It is all or nothing. You are either a university professor or you don’t do [research] at all.”

Arbesman, the co-author, said the idea behind the paper was to inspire people who might work in the private sector and want to do research on the side. The thought is similar to “fractional entrepreneurship,” where a part of an individual’s time might be used to run a company.

Some within academe reacted cautiously to the idea; reactions ranged from skeptical to supportive.

Robert Townsend, deputy director of the American Historical Association, said the idea might even apply to those who teach at four-year teaching institutions. “They might say, ‘We want to participate in the months that we are not teaching,’ ” he said.

And although the idea seems appealing, Townsend questioned whether the humanities would be a good fit for fractional scholarship. “The sciences are much more compact whereas in the humanities you dig deep into esoteric things. It is hard to imagine how this could be monetized,” he said. “This idea seems like a ‘university of the mind.’ But given the costs involved, it is hard to see how one can muster the resources.”

A good use of fractional scholarship might be cross-disciplinary or multidisciplinary research, said Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, who applauded the idea. It could also be a stepping stone to a more permanent research career, she suggested. But she also cautioned against pitfalls that the average postdoctoral student faces: “low compensation relative to the credentials and experience of the scholar, lack of any way to provide benefits to a fractional scholar, and a sense of isolation.”

Lorraine Tracey, chair of the board of directors at the National Postdoctoral Association, shared similar thoughts, and said that the current academic structure hinders creativity and passion. The battle for funding can stall creativity, as can demanding requirements for publication, she said. “Innovation happens when scholars have a mechanism to harness their passion,” she said. “Evolution of the academic structure is necessary to ensure that we continue to encourage creativity, and mechanisms to promote fractional scholarship are a welcome advance.”

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