Jan 07, 2021

Fellowships as a service

My friend and collaborator Peter Bihr wrote that he thinks fellowships are the way forward. Basically, he argues for a lighter / more agile form of research than what academia and big R&D labs can accomplish, and believes that fellowships are an interesting option to achieve understanding in these edgy topics.

Whereas basic research tends to be the domain of either universities or big corporate R&D labs, many of those more fuzzy — but no less important! — issues will happen outside of those structures: These labs are simply not set up to address those kinds of topics.

Between the increased level of global uncertainty and the broad range of signals and competing movements it brings, the fragmentation of discourse across many societal fault lines, the disappearing of forms to reach societal consensus on even the most basic foundations like factual information — between all of these mega forces, fellowships give us leverage to empower and amplify those working for a better future.

Almost exactly a year ago, Peter was also writing about fellowships and I did a quick post on my personal blog to highlight the format he has in mind.

I’ve really turned into a huge fan of the fellowship model, and not just because I’ve had the privilege and frankly luck to benefit so directly from it: Fellowships are a powerful model that allow to also bring in independents like me; it might be one of the few ways to do that short of hiring/contracting. And the idea of independent research — think of it as free range research, largely self-directed and not tied to specific outputs — allows for really interesting, valuable outcomes.

He encourages organizations to consider starting their own fellowships "that aligns with their goals."

I'm wondering if there isn't an even simpler way of getting organizations to jump on this, perhaps through a group of self-directed researchers (loosely organized or under some coop-ish non-profit model?) who would have a menu of research foci they are able to tackle. A kind of plug and play research fellowship. "You are interested in this topic and need to dig deeper / observe more broadly? We have someone in our network with the transdisciplinary outlook and domain fluency required, and who would love to spend part of their next six - twelve months and share findings throughout the process."

This would not be user or market research and the ROI would likely be relatively hazy under normal metrics. What I'm thinking about here is pretty aligned with my other consultancy offerings and in all three cases that ROI haziness is present for some people. One has to understand the value of knowing and understanding more about changes, context, and their surroundings to value these kinds of projects, but it's there for sure.

The biggest caveat to this "fellowship as a service" is of course the selection process. Normally, the organization would open a proposal period and make a selection amongst a number of applicants. There's definitely value in the diversity of proposals which wouldn't be in the format above.

I'm still throwing the idea out there, perhaps it just needs a different framing or there's a way to replicate that application process. Anyway, I'm thinking out loud here, I just love Peter's description of the fellowships he was part of, the need he highlights, and wonder if there's a hybrid model between setting up a whole fellowship program and a quicker format adjacent to advisory / consultancy.