Revisiting the gig economy: a Labor Day post

Biosystems Analytics

Reposted from my Ronin Institute blog post

The Ronin Institute’s Research Scholars are drawn from many different career stages, levels of experience and backgrounds, and given that we don’t advocate a single model of a career in scholarship (in contrast to the traditional academic pipeline), it isn’t surprising that Research Scholars explore many different means to support their scholarship (we are still analyzing the results of the independent scholarship survey we did last year, but this much is clear). For many Research Scholars who are also freelancers, especially those in the sciences, one common means of support is being hired for short or long-term projects by academic institutions, private companies or non-profit organizations. This may be in in full-time or part-time capacity as an independent contractor or consultant. Ideally these projects utilise the scholars’ unique research background and skills and the experience and skills gained during consulting activities will…

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Nature’s cultural blindspot

Yours truly on the Ronin Institute blog

A recent editorial in NatureYoung scientists thrive in life after academia” on the future of careers for today’s scientists is on one hand, both optimistic, but on the other, deeply unsatisfying. The editorial is clearly well-intentioned, providing what it sees as a hope for a generation of new scientists facing the worse funding climate and academic job market in decades. I agree with the editors that it is encouraging that people with PhDs and long periods of training are finding gainful employment.

However the editorial has what might be called a cultural blindspot: the default assumption that doing research science is largely an activity that one undertakes only within a specific set of jobs performed in specific institutions and once you’re out of those institutions, there’s both no way to continue, nor any way back.  Of those who moved out of academic positions:

Many had managed to stay in touch with science, and worked in a related function such as administration, outreach or publishing.

This seems to me to be disempowering: the best one can hope for is “to stay in touch with science”[1]. Is this really the most we can do for those who have spent many years acquiring skill and knowledge of a subject? Is doing science really like a step function: all or nothing? To be fair, the editorial doesn’t say this, but that’s how I read the subtext.

Read more on the Ronin Institute blog post….

Decoding Turnbull: what his 2015 acceptance speech really said

On the day of the 2016 Australian Federal election, let’s rewind to last year.  On September 14, 2015, Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the party Liberal Party leadership, and Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief as the brief, but strange and destructive, reign of Tony Abbott came to an abrupt end.  There was a sense, especially amongst Australian progressives, that we might see a return to a more moderate Liberal Party. And if you cursorily examine Turnbull’s acceptance speech, it sounds thoroughly sensible and moderate, touching on now-familiar bromides of “creativity” and “innovation”:

“This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government. It will be a thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”

Who can be against any of that?  Sounds good, right?  Being agile, creative, innovative! Yeaah! But having lived in the United States through the first dot-com boom, the Global Financial Crisis, and now the current tech-boom that creates only a relatively small number of jobs (and wealth for only a few of those in those jobs) and the rise of the predatory “sharing economy” of AirBnB and Uber, many of these phrases ring hollow to me. Phrases that use words like agility, creativity and innovation are very handy because they sound great as sound-bites, but are more often used as a fig leaf to disguise the true agenda.  Cognitive linguist George Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics has written extensively about how US right-wing think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have been successfully using words and metaphors to “frame” otherwise unpalatable policies for decades.  These think-tanks have, in turn, been diligently exporting these framings around the world through exchanges with Australian equivalents like the Institute for Public Affairs. Creativity and innovation used in the context of the LNP are code for a corporatist neoliberal set of policies that is focused on one thing and one thing only: enriching those already wealthy with even more wealth.

Many progressive Australians didn’t really see this true agenda clearly and wanted to believe that this would be a kinder, gentler Coalition government. I, too, shared this hope (although there were some commentators at the time who were not buying it). And, while the rhetoric on social issues like gay marriage has clearly shifted in a more moderate direction, in the areas that affect the most people: economics, benefits, job security and investments to build a better future, the Turnbull government has doubled-down on the economic rationalism. (The Labor Party under Shorten, by mostly sticking to economic rationalism-lite, has failed to offer a truly compelling alternatives).

So before today’s election I offer this handy decoded version of Turnbull’s acceptance speech to reveal what he really means:

“This will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal Government. It will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the converting any  remaining  institutions devoted to the public good over to market-based solutions even in areas where they demonstrably do not work like healthcare, labor markets, carbon emissions regulation and financial regulation. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive because we’ve engineered it to be so through deregulation and capital market expansions and flexible labor market policies and there is greater misery opportunities for ordinary people, we are able to the lucky and the wealthy can take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile and jumps when transnational corporate interests want us to jump as specified in “trade” agreements like the TPP, that is innovative in creating wealth for a smaller number of people with fewer stable jobs through more complicated financial services and instruments, that is creative in moving money around but is not creative in challenging corporate interests and we will defund the those in the sciences or arts organizations that do so. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves by collectively deciding where we allocate our resources democratically. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology  neoliberal policies that deliberately transfer wealth up the hierarchy by invoking an outdated notion of  technological determinism to disguise those policies, and that the volatility in change is our friend if we are for those of us who are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it, and we will heap scorn and derision and demonize those who question these policies. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today if you’re in the 1% and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian in that 1%. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future for its wealthy friends in the corporate class and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it, by privatizing Medicare, deregulating the public university system and introduce US-style student loans and removing people or groups in positions of authority in institutions such as the CSIRO or the ABC that question these policies.

In the Turnbull/Liberal National Party “vision” there is no sense of the common good, of building a democratic future together, of supporting and strengthening civil society, of investing in basic science (outside of narrowly defined biomedical science, funded through cuts to Medicare), or growing sustainable (i.e. non-venture-capital based) small and medium sized businesses that create long term value for Australians. Just every agile man and women for him or herself in the global marketplace.

Get jumping!!

Open Science and Its Discontents

My first post on the Ronin Institute blog:

Open science has well and truly arrived. Preprints. Research Parasites. Scientific Reproducibility. Citizen science. Mozilla, the producer of the Firefox browser, has started an Open Science initiative. Open science really hit the mainstream in 2016. So what is open science? Depending on who you ask, it simply means more timely and regular releases of data sets, and publication in open-access journals. Others imagine a more radical transformation of science and scholarship and are advocating “open-notebook” science with a continuous public record of scientific work and concomitant release of open data. In this more expansive vision: science will be ultimately transformed from a series of static snapshots represented by papers and grants into a more supple and real-time practice where the production of science involves both professionals and citizen scientists blending, and co-creating a publicly available shared knowledge. Michael Nielsen, author of the 2012 book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science describes open science, less as a set of specific practices, but ultimately as a process to amplify collective intelligence to solve scientific problems more easily:

To amplify collective intelligence, we should scale up collaborations, increasing the cognitive diversity and range of available expertise as much as possible. This broadens the range of problems that can be easy solved … Ideally, the collaboration will achieve designed serendipity, so that a problem that seems hard to the person posing it finds its way to a person with just the right microexpertise to easily solve it.

Read the rest at the Ronin Institute blog

Where is this cancer moonshot aimed?

Biosystems Analytics

Much has been made of the recent announcement of VP Biden’s cancer moonshot program.  In these days of ever tightening research funding, every little bit helps, and the research community is obviously grateful for any infusion of funds.   However, large-scale approaches to tackling cancer have been a staple of funding ever since Nixon announced his “War on Cancer” back in the 1970s, and any new approaches must grapple with the often complicated history of research funding in this area.  Ronin Institute Research Scholar, Curt Balch, has a interesting post over on LinkedIn breaking down some of these issues.

What seems relatively new in this iteration of the “war”, however, is a greater awareness of the lack of communication between different approaches to those working on cancer.  Biden has specifically mentioned this need and has pledged to “break down silos and bring all cancer fighters together”.  This…

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Hollywood’s take on Wall Street: The Big Systemic Corruption

The Big Short is just about the best film I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s as if Guy Ritchie and Michael Moore took some coke together and decided to make a film about the almost-complete financial meltdown of the world.  Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 bestseller, it delves deeply into both the mechanics of the crash and the mentality that drove us there.  It doesn’t pander, isn’t emotionally overwrought and gives just about the best explanation that I’ve heard of a synthetic CDO thanks to Selena Gomez and behavioural economist Richard Thaler.

THE BIG SHORT

The casting is spot on with Steve Carrell giving an amazing career-defining performance.  It has a fast-based, but not overly hyper-kinetic style, and is leavened through with a kind of gallows-humour, as expected given director Adam McKay’s background in comedy.  It’s also a film that treats the underlying ideas seriously, but it also never feels too complicated and plot-driven, no mean feat for a director. 

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From The Secret River to Stan Grant’s debate

The current longest non-stop flight in the world is the Qantas route from Sydney to Dallas: 14.5 hours in the air in an Airbus A-380.  A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on  that Airbus flipping through the inflight entertainment system in that semi-catatonic state that all long-haul flights seem to induce, when I stumbled across an intriguingly-titled television series: The Secret River.  It turned out to be a two-part mini-series originally broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation based on a novel by author Kate Grenville.  The blurb promised an exploration of an emancipated convict in the early days of the colony of New South Wales, carving out a new life on the Hawkesbury River (the Secret River of the title).

I thought to myself, this seem promising, and settled back expecting a mildly diverting period piece about early Australian history that I had never seen dramatized.  I imagined it might be a little dry and slow, but would have great images of the bushland that I was familiar with growing up (the Hawkesbury is just a 20-30 minute drive away from where I grew up), I was interested to see how the producers recreated the early Australian colony, and at the very least it would while away about 3 of the remaining hours until touchdown in Dallas.  Instead I found myself watching a graphic and unsentimental depiction of the often brutal confrontation between the early European settlers and the indigenous people, the Australian Aborigines.Read More »