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.
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Nadia Eghbal is a researcher at Protocol Labs where she explores the production and economic models behind open source software.