Fellowships are the way forward

The role and importance of fellowships is going to grow vastly over the next few years.

Why? More and more highly relevant research, especially around societal issues that tend to be inherently interdisciplinary, will come from independent researchers, or from folks working in side projects, cross-subsidized by their day jobs.

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.

To give an example, over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of important research about the anti-vaxxer movement in the US conducted by researchers in their spare time because they were concerned about their young children; this surfaced important lessons for the understanding of social media election interference and on online misinformation.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll see more — many, many more; infinitely more — issues just like that: Discovered by someone on the fringes based on personal interest, a researcher who’s also a fan of some internet subculture or what have you, who serves as a canary in the proverbial coal mine.

Recognizing these research interests for the early signals that they are and empowering these folks to double down on their research could pay huge dividends, societally speaking.

Personally, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to be part of two fellowship programs (Mozilla & Edgeryders) which allowed me to dig much deeper into the intersection of technology and trust than I would ever have otherwise, and this work continues to reverberate through policy circles even years later.

Fellowships are of course not a new model. But/and we’re at a time where we see just how incredibly powerful they are.

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.

And that really is it: An opportunity that now is more relevant than ever before. Creating a fellowship program is not necessarily the easiest task, but it can be done. There are many legitimate forms of fellowship, and there’s a lot of flexibility built into that format. So most orgs could conceivably start a fellowship program that aligns with their goals.

Especially foundations that already have experience in this space have a grand opportunity in plain sight: To revisit their programs and make sure to tweak them to support these independent researchers working on cutting edge issues. To maximize the impact of both researchers and foundations.

If you’re in that space, let’s chat!

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