Interview with an Independent Scholar

David Randall

The National Association of Scholars favors the search for truth in higher education—and therefore favors reforms to academic culture and institutions that will facilitate the search for truth. Academia isn’t just afflicted by politicization and the growth of higher education administration. The disciplines are also increasingly sclerotic—too much concerned with credentials and social networks, not enough concerned with intrinsic merit. Practically, this sclerosis contributes to academia’s politicized groupthink—but it’s bad in itself, even without that corollary effect.

One especially pernicious effect has been the marginalization of independent scholars from scholarly conversations. Organizations such as the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship help by providing a home base for independent scholars, but academia remains far too insular, far too closed off from independent work. We think academics should be more open to scholarship outside the guild.

We don’t yet have a policy solution at hand for this problem—but we think it’s worth highlighting the problem for a wider audience. As a first step toward doing so, we’ve interviewed Thomas J. Buckholtz, a physicist who pursued a varied career that has included three years as Commissioner, Information Resources Management Service, of the U. S. General Services Administration. Our interview is meant to give a sense of the challenges facing independent scholars.

You’re an independent scholar working in the field of physics. Can you tell us about your professional background?

I started out with the classic career track for an academic faculty member or industrial scientist. I was interested in mathematics, physics, and – starting during high school – computing. I took part in a local science club. From the end of high school through the end of graduate school, I worked summers for aerospace companies and science laboratories. I received a B.S. in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.

After I got my Ph.D., I veered away from the academic track. I worked for a start-up company and raised venture capital for it. I worked for businesses, pioneered the implementation of various information technologies, built tools for building software, and built business and scientific information systems. I served in leadership roles. For a utility, I catalyzed a company-wide grassroots innovation program. While there, I pioneered a type of software license, became a public spokesperson, and informally worked as a contracts lawyer.

I served as a commissioner in the United States General Services Administration. Effectively, I was co-chief information officer for the Executive Branch. I oversaw 2,000 government employees and procurement that amounted to about 2.5 to 3 percent of the world information-technology marketplace. My GSA Service provided a billion dollars per year in telecommunications services and information-technology professional services throughout the U.S. federal government.

I developed so-called “thinking tools” in the hopes that people could benefit from my experience.

There is a lot more to mention, but let me just say that I’ve taught, written books, provided consulting services, advised start-up companies, and served on university and other advisory boards.

It is a career filled with satisfying accomplishments. And, it has been intellectually stimulating and challenging.

How did you become an independent scholar?

I never stopped being fascinated with pure research. It is not so much that I “became” an independent scholar, but that I never stopped being a scholar. I kept up with professional physics research. I used the frame of mind I acquired in my career and applied it to scientific problems. My varied jobs have emphasized the need for combining insights and hunches, even when they are “nontraditional,” with rigorous thinking to put these insights into practice. Good management combines openness to creativity and the ability to follow through on an original insight.

I think what I now bring to physics, as an independent scholar, is a frame of mind trained in business and government, and not just in academia.

What are you working on now?

I am working on an integrated solution to three 90-plus years-old physics problems. First, I am developing a possible analog, for elementary particles, to the periodic table for chemical elements. The work predicts, with specificity, elementary particles that might explain known data and predict new phenomena. Second, in the field of astrophysics, I am developing a well-specified candidate description for dark matter. The work seems to explain relatively recently announced data about ratios of dark matter effects to ordinary matter effects. Third, in cosmology, I am attempting to explain dark energy forces. The work seems to explain eras regarding the rate of expansion of the universe. An integrating aspect of the work suggests and uses an extension to mathematics for harmonic oscillators.

What are the advantages of working as an independent scholar?

If one is in a university, there is a lot of work one might have to do that might distract one from research. I am relatively free of that work. I do not have to teach classes, although sometimes I choose to. I do not have to supervise students, seek or administer grants, serve on committees, take part in faculty governance, perform outreach or fund-raising not directly related to research, pursue tenure or promotion, meet job-description requirements, or cope with resource-allocation or personnel issues. It can be a blessing to be free of all that.

So, what are the disadvantages?

Isolation from my peers and their communities. A wonderful thing about working in academia is that one can talk with other academics in person, by email, at conferences, via peer review, and via the entire social network. When I left academia for work in business and government, I lost my access to that network.

I do not get feedback or many suggestions regarding research. It is hard to find collaborators with whom to work or to get introductions that would allow me to talk with experts. It can be difficult to post manuscripts; some preprint-posting sites seem to have restrictions that are not based on content. Journals do not solicit peer-reviewers for manuscripts or explain reasons for rejecting work for which the journals do not try to obtain peer-reviewers. Conferences that accept my proposals schedule my talks for final sessions of last days; by the time those sessions start, many participants have left the conferences.

It can be hard to learn about new research and to access the latest publications. It can be hard to get access to computing or laboratory facilities. One does not learn of possibly relevant conferences. It would be nice to have information-technology technical support, research-librarian support, and clerical support. It would be good to have access to a university’s publicity infrastructure, so that one’s research has a better chance to obtain coverage by, for example, science journalists. And, it could be good to have more opportunities to dine and attend public events, both for the chance for intellectual engagement and for the opportunities to network.

I know the world does not owe me attention. Still, it is clear that a university credential and membership in academic communities open a large number of doors, and that independent researchers endure substantial hurdles, absent that credential or such membership.

What are the broader effects of academia’s distancing from independent scholars?

It can be natural for people to drift into mental silos, to get into small groups and lose contact with the broader world. People in one silo do not necessarily know people in other silos, or what those other people know, or even how to communicate with them effectively. A good part of management and leadership is making sure that the workforce does not overly fragment. Silo behavior loses opportunities to innovate. That is true in government and in business, and it is true in academia. Academic scholars lose out, because they are too deep in their silos to talk to independent scholars. Scientific research loses out, because it is overly fragmented.

Academia’s silo behavior fosters fragmentation of American – and global – society as a whole. American people may turn fragmentation into distrust. One might measure aspects of that by the decreasing amount of some types of governmental funding for public higher education.

I think academics often fail to provide even basic courtesies to independent scholars, such as replies to emails or follow-ups based on promises seemingly made. I think that discourtesy correlates with academia’s silo culture, and I think it makes the broader division between academia and society even worse.

I suppose that one can consider independents to be “canaries in the coal mine.” Likely, there are more independent researchers – in science, history, and other fields – than one might initially imagine. The number of independent scholars who seek discussions with academia may be small, compared to the population of America. If academics cannot be civil to independent scholars, how can they be civil to Americans as a whole? And, indeed, one can imagine that lack of civility leads to lost opportunities, even just within academia.

What do you think society in general or academia in particular might do to make it easier for independent scholars to contribute to scholarly conversations?

I have various ideas. Let me mention some of them.

Universities and departments could designate point persons, whom independent scholars could contact to ask who in the university might be interested in discussing particular areas of research. Such point persons might also provide useful services for journalists and prospective donors.

Universities, professional associations, and conferences could make dedicated efforts to invite independent scholars to participate in sessions, in conferences, and in all the back-and-forth and informal peer review that helps scholars polish their work, before the scholars submit work to a journal or a book publisher.

Academic publishing can be a mysterious jungle, even for insiders. It can be impenetrable for independent scholars. It would be wonderful if an effort – perhaps including participation by universities – developed a transparent online guide to publication. The guide could cover journals and book publishers, and provide a quick method for people to specify factors and learn of relevant journals and imprints. Factors could include topics covered, readership profile, word-count limits, journal-impact ratings, quality of peer-reviewing, the extent to which a publisher names peer reviewers for accepted manuscripts, fees, degree of open access, turn-around time, policies pertaining to copyrights for publications and to subsequent reuse of materials, manuscript formatting requirements and tools, and so on. I think this sort of guide would be useful for many academics, especially grad students. But academics get some of this information via coffee-break conversation. Independent scholars could really use that sort of guide.

All sorts of format standardization would be even more helpful for independent scholars than for academics. Book proposals; formatting regarding text, equations, references to equations, tables, figures, and citations; bibliographies; topic classifications; indexing; possibly required standardized highest-level section titles: It is more than usually frustrating to have a proposal or paper rejected and then to need to redo many of these aspects for a submission to another publisher. And, if journals and books are going to insist on their own formats, maybe they could provide authors with some free software to convert a paper – from a format established by some standards-setting entity – to their preferred formats. A possible alternative or supplement, that would be useful throughout much scientific publishing, would be for individual publishers to make available easy-to-install and easy-to-use so-called LaTeX document classes.

Perhaps some academics take these matters as just irritations. But any barrier that irritates an academic can become an insuperable burden for an independent scholar.

Professional associations and universities could include the topic of independents, or “amateurs,” in discussions and policies pertaining to diversity.

What institutions are in place to help independent scholars?

Science journalists and some websites point to or provide useful perspectives and details about established knowledge and new research. The open-access movement helps obviate aspects related to access to information and to timeliness and costs of such access. The open-source movement and some websites provide tools that facilitate doing some computations, producing manuscripts, and so forth. Many such developments are potentially good for the public and all scholars, and the developments are especially useful for independent scholars. Also, some websites facilitate dialog regarding specific topics or manuscripts. And, some professional-association conference sponsors allow association members to speak at conferences.

What do you need most as an independent scholar?

Feedback. Suggestions. Collaboration. Networking. Community. And, for work that seems useful, traction for, use of, and extensions to the work. “Independent” does not necessarily mean “self-sufficient” or “adequately contributing.” “Independent scholar” does not necessarily mean someone who disdains academic research. It means a scholar who is not adequately affiliated with a university, or equivalent academic or business-like institution. It is partly because I value academic research so highly that I would like there to be fewer academic silos, so that society and I can have the opportunity to extend and take advantage of academics’ knowledge and research. I think I have something to contribute to scholarship; to various fields, including science; and to society. And, I will have more to contribute if I can engage with academics in the process.

What institutional reforms would be most helpful?

In a large sense, it is a question of attitude. Regarding academia, the publishing industry, science journalism, and professional associations, it would make much difference if they adopted a more welcoming attitude toward independent scholars. Once they have that attitude, a host of reforms and other societal benefits likely will follow.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

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