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We live in very comfortable times (more or less). Nowadays communication between people from different parts of the world is very easy. In addition, many people are born into wealthy families, so they have the possibility to dedicate their lives to whatever they want.

With this in mind, it seems to me that there should be many people who dedicate themselves to science or mathematics without being linked to any research center. I can think of some examples from the past, like Henry Cavendish. But I have no present examples in mind. I don't remember reading an article in which the authors are not related to any university.

Obviously, no one can have a large hadron collider in their living room, but we can read and write about more theoretical topics (such as pure mathematics). So, is there a reason why there aren't independent researchers out there? Or am I wrong and there are people like that? Even if there are a few cases, it seems to me that there should be many people in that situation.

Perhaps the academy rejects this type of researchers or it is possible that nowadays things are so difficult that it is not possible to make discoveries without the support of an institution (universities and others), but I am not sure that this is the case...

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    Garrett Lisi is an example.
    – Anyon
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 12:53
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    I've known several independently wealthy people who worked in academia or at a research lab. Why not? They had gotten the PhD (training on how to do research) and some entity wanted to pay them to come work there, and provided funding and other amenities as well?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:18
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    Related / possible duplicate: Why do researchers need universities?
    – cag51
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 18:38
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    Now you've got me wanting a LHC in my living room.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 14:00
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    Do you have a source for the claim that many people are born into wealthy families and can do whatever they want? I don't know any of them personally. I know a lot of people that are "wealthy enough" they don't need to drop out of school to earn money, but they sure do need to get a job eventually.
    – Sabine
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 20:13

7 Answers 7

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The short answer is really that people do what they are paid for. "Independent researchers" in the way you describe them don't have a salary, and the only people who can do that are those who are independently wealthy and have the inclination to spend their days doing research. That's just not a very large number of people.

But let's pretend that you have someone who fits the bill. Then they still need some kind of infrastructure. For example, they need access to a library because it is quite a hassle to pay individually for every article you want to look at. It turns out to be quite useful in that case to be affiliated with a university, and in that case if you are serious about your research hobby, you might as well take an unpaid position at a university -- or if you're good enough, you might just as well take a paid position where you become formally associated with the university even though you might not actually need the money.

The situation above is then geared to people who have enough money not to need an income, but for which the next step is not a possibility: Let's assume that you don't just have $5M in the bank, but a $1B. In that case, you have so much money that not only do you not have to work, but you can actually pay other people as well. Quite a number of billionaires have actually done that: They see their mission in founding and/or running a research institute -- i.e., they feel passionate enough about a subject that they want to pay others to work on it. Occasionally, they might end up doing some research themselves as well, but their main mission is about the funding and management of these institutes.

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  • It could be the answer, but it seems to me that being a wealthy person with inclinations for research is more likely than ending up as an astronaut. Maybe it's harder to be an astronaut and your answer is totally correct. However, if not, there are quite a few astronauts...
    – Yester
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:05
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    @yester How many privateers have ended up being astronauts? I want to venture the guess that it's no more than 20. Wikipedia only lists 30 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_astronaut) but only 4 of these were actually in orbit. Commented May 3, 2023 at 15:03
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    Put another way: anyone who is good and willing to work for free will be able to acquire a university affiliation.
    – avid
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 20:17
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    ''because it is quite a hassle to pay individually for every article you want to look at'' I think it is common knowledge that there are easy ways around this.
    – Tom
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 13:02
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    @Tom ...which are also a hassle and/or illegal. Commented May 4, 2023 at 15:34
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Money has to come from somewhere. In days long past, "independent" researchers were really just protégés of their wealthy patrons (or wealthy themselves), whether royalty or from business. Those people are responsible for spending their own funds, and if they want to spend them on someone who impresses them they're free to do so.

The modern university is a means to distribute government funds for research (in addition to other educational missions). In some cases, they also directly create the funds for research by effectively using tuition funds to pay professors to teach part-time while spending other time on research. Some bureaucracy is necessary to do the administrative work of making sure money is spent on what it's supposed to be spent on, enforcing research ethics, monitoring the mentor/mentee relationships between professors and students, etc.

If you can find someone who'll just hand you cash to do research outside a university, including all the support infrastructure you might need like library services and ethics review boards and stipends for students to study with you, you can be as independent as you like.

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    Thank you, although my question is focused on cases in which not too much material is necessary to work and people with enough wealth to not depend on a salary.
    – Yester
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:13
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    @Yester Few people fit that description, seems like it's up to them to decide how to spend their money. Some choose to fund whole institutions, consider e.g. the Allen Institute (though they take in outside money as well). Others aim for space. Those ventures clearly depend on more than one person. Nothing is preventing an individual who wants to fund their own career in math and has the money to mitigate any obstacles from doing so.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:22
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    @Yester Yes, your question seems to assume there are many people who want to do this and have the means yet do not; I'm not sure there's any evidence for that.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:32
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    @Yester the material I need for research is 1) Food 2) a place to live 3)some extra money to buy things I like. University jobs barely pay for that in many countries, and with the cost of living, we all need to work hard to get those things paid somehow. Even with no cost of research, the cost of "existing" can not be ignored, its not small. Commented May 4, 2023 at 11:11
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    Keep in mind that even if you have someone who is sufficiently independently wealthy to not need to worry about money, they'd also need to be interested in research, part of a field that doesn't require too much in the way of facilities or equipment, good enough at it to make productive contributions to advance the state of knowledge, sufficiently hermit-like and motivated to want to do it largely alone, and so interested in the above that they choose to pursue independent research instead of anything else they could be doing with their rather flexible life. Not that many people fit the bill. Commented May 7, 2023 at 5:50
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This is a very interesting question and I pondered about it myself in the past.

I think that just like anything in life, you eventually need other people to succeed (or succeed even more in case you are already successful -- see below). Academia provides you with tools that are very necessary for research but often overlooked such as:

  1. Equipment for experiments
  2. Free software
  3. Access to research articles
  4. Access to other researchers both locally and via an extended network of collaborators
  5. Lectures, courses, workshops, networking events

In fact, academic publishing became a thing 300 years ago in order to help researchers come together as a body that works towards scientific advancement. Before publishing, people worked independently and received support from nobles and patrons. Even Einstein, who worked independently initially, joined Academia eventually.

So it's very much possible up to a point, I think, but eventually, it's beneficial to be part of something like a community.

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    Einstein only worked independently because he couldn't find a university position after graduation. And he was doing his PhD concurrently with the patent office work, so he was in academia even then. (There were a couple of years after the PhD before he managed to land a job as a professor, though.)
    – Ray
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 18:20
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    6. A large, cheap workforce of students. ;)
    – Karl
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 22:22
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Certainly there are some solo researchers.

One thing is, it's not a simple thing to know how many there are because it's not a simple thing to know how many researchers there are in a field period.

It's not even a straightforward thing to know how many researchers there are at any given institution. Consider PhD candidates through to emeritus profs. Often it is not made clear who is or is not involved with a given school. The profs are usually there long enough to be officially listed. Emeritus profs might or might not be, depending on the level of involvement they have. Post docs and research associates might or might not be listed, depending on the particular culture at a particular institute. Grad students often hide until their thesis is due.

Also, research papers do not usually come at regular predictable intervals. So if you see a paper by one person, and nothing a few years, are they still active? Or did they get a non-research job? Or did they do a "fly-by" and do some research "on the side" from a non-research job? So, even to a given person, it is not always manifest whether they are involved in research.

From another point of view, there is the question of earning a living. Outside of universities and institutes, there isn't a huge amount of money in quantum gravity theory. Universities have tuition income, grants from government and industry, and income from endowments. Non-university research institutes often have all of that other than the tuition income.

Another aspect of institutions is that the social structure and reputation of the place can be helpful in applying for grants. A grant application from Shining University on the Hill (a made up name to represent some very well known uni) will likely look better to nearly any grant agency, government or private. So getting money on your own is, sometimes, much harder.

Institutions usually also have a variety of facilities from libraries to athletic centers that are quite attractive. A big meeting hall for visiting speakers. Grad students to do "mundane" calculations on papers. Colleagues to ask for suggestions when you get stuck. And so on. So the lone researcher is missing out on a lot of this. If a talented individual does not like the uni culture, they will often seek a non-uni research institute.

The structure of an institution is supportive in other ways. Feynman expressed it this way. When he was doing some interesting research and making progress on it, he felt very good about that. But when the research was quiet or going very slow, he could still feel good about teaching his students. That would sustain him until the problem with the research was dealt with. So, having something useful to do besides staring at an unsolved equation (or whatever) can be very personally helpful.

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    Thank you. Personally, I think "an institution is supportive in other ways" is a particularly influential factor, although it is not the most obvious.
    – Yester
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 13:35
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The urge to associate and communicate is innate to us humans. So much so that dialogue is a powerful way, even a necessity, to come up with new ideas. Historically, cities, where lots of people congregated, were the hotbeds of innovation, and within the cities the universities.

It is hard to inspire oneself; it is hard to come up with something new without input. The history of science is full with hallway encounters and scientific cross-fertilization, if you want. I suppose that being part of a group and having friends who are physically present is also important in personal and social ways, providing stability and support. I think most researchers encounter a crisis at some point in their career where they need personal encouragement and validation.

This scientific and social dialogue is much easier and more frequent and less directed (one condition for surprise, which is another word for something new) when people are in the same location. Our current experiments with home office seem to indicate that while the standard work can be done quite efficiently remotely, other aspects fall short. My guess is that strategy and innovation are among those.

That said, there are subjects like mathematics where a capable mind can penetrate problems in solitude. Because it also doesn't usually need any infrastructure there are famous examples of reclusive mathematicians. But modern mathematics is becoming increasingly collaborative. Much progress can be made by "parallelizing" problems by investigating sub-problems or special cases. As far as I can tell, this cooperation is often happening remotely though; perhaps the nature of math (and the mathematicians?) makes it more agreeable with remote communication than some other sciences.

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    I believe this is the key point. Even if you have the money and have sufficient intrinsic motivation to dedicate yourself to a complicated subject for many years despite not needing a career or anything, it will nowadays be extremely hard to contribute anything meaningful to science without having colleagues and collaborators. That, IMHO, is the key function of universities in enabling research. If I imagine myself doing my research alone at home, I would basically not have managed to do any of the things I did, or at much lower quality.
    – Eike P.
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 11:53
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    Good point that research is increasingly collaborative nowadays. As a metric, you can see that the fraction of single-author papers in many fields has steadily fallen to a small minority over the past several decades. The vast majority of researchers do not work independently. Commented May 4, 2023 at 15:53
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Since people need to eat, the only practical way to do this for most people is to do it as a hobby, and some fields are actually suitable. The one I am most familiar with is astronomy, where some gear can be within the budget of individuals, and there is a large tradition of stargazing for pleasure.

Some of those people do actual research, and even collaborate with professional astronomers doing what is called Pro-Am astronomy. Some of the targets (like supernovae discovery) are eventually gobbled up by institutions, but the amateur community was useful paving the way and showing what it was possible.

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If you're not associated with a university or a large business, you're probably a crank.

There does exist a fair amount of research being done outside of academia, such as the AI research being done by large IT companies like Google or Microsoft, or drug research being done at large pharmaceutical companies.

However, if some random person working on their own claims to be doing scientific research, odds are they're just a crank. Being unaffiliated means that they haven't gone through the vetting process that clears out most of the crank and leaves the people who make actual research. Occasionally you'll get people who do make actual progress, like those high school kids who made the news for creating a new proof of Pythagoras's Theorem using trigonometry, but it's not often.

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    A malapropism that combined "crank" and "crackpot" into a portmanteau, now that I've double checked.
    – nick012000
    Commented May 13, 2023 at 6:04
  • There is research at some startups, but arguably to generate a portfolio of patents rather than academic papers. Commented May 13, 2023 at 6:07

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