Be sure it's worth your while

Michael Chung proposes the Einstein/Murray Rule to help researchers determine the true value of their work

April 21, 2011

In November 2010, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley published in PLoS ONE, the open-access online journal, the results of a study about hamsters and jet lag. They found that hamsters with severe jet lag exhibited deficits in learning and recollection.

How did the news media react? They ridiculed the study and presented it as out of touch with society's needs.

Producers often like to end news broadcasts with a light and humorous item, and many ended their segments by mentioning the jet-lagged hamster study. What scientists considered to be worthy of time, money and energy, the US national media treated as a joke.

Although media opinion should not set the scholarly research agenda, it does raise the question of whether there needs to be more accountability when it comes to allocating resources towards certain research topics. Is a study undertaken solely to satisfy a researcher's curiosity justified? Leaving aside the impact agenda, should there be more guidelines to determine research pursuits?

I have heard it said that more than 70 per cent of academic studies have no practical value in the real world. One could argue that the hamster/jet lag study is evidence. I would like to suggest a rule that could be used to help guide researchers. This, which I have dubbed the Einstein/Murray Rule, is based on the thought of the eminent physicist Albert Einstein and former bond salesman and banker Gordon Murray.

Addressing students at the California Institute of Technology in February 1939, Einstein said: "Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours ... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."

These words should prompt a researcher to ask, among other things: Is the primary aim of his or her work to publish an article or to contribute to society? How will this research benefit civilisation?

The quote is broad in the sense that what determines "concern for humankind" is debatable. One can twist just about anything to make it sound like it will benefit society: certainly jet-lagged hamsters can be. Therefore, my rule needs fine-tuning.

Enter Gordon Murray, former banker and managing director of both Credit Suisse First Boston and Lehman Brothers. Murray was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2008, and decided to end his treatment in summer 2010. With months to live, Murray decided not to waste his time or rush to a secluded island, but to help people. He decided to write The Investment Answer (with Daniel C. Goldie), a guide for ordinary investors.

"Why a book? And why this subject?" asked Ron Lieber in a profile of Murray in The New York Times last November. "Nine years ago, after retiring from 25 years of pushing bonds on pension and mutual fund managers trying to beat the market averages over long periods of time, Mr Murray had an epiphany about the futility of his former customers' pursuits.

"He eventually went to work as a consultant for Dimensional Fund Advisors, a mutual fund company that rails against active money management. So when his death sentence arrived, Mr Murray knew he had to work quickly and resolved to get the word out to as many everyday investors as he could."

Thus Murray provides the other element of our rule to decide whether a research pursuit is worthwhile: if one had only months to live, would it be worth completing? With time short, one reassesses priorities. Many will choose to spend time with family and loved ones. With little time left, Murray chose to finish a book to help people.

On 15 August 2010, five months before his death, the first edition of The Investment Answer was published. It immediately sold more than 200,000 copies. Murray died on 16 January, aged 60, almost six months after he had quit treatment.

Einstein and Murray offer wisdom to help the academy in pursuit of research. Does it benefit humanity as a whole? If one had months to live, would the research be worth finishing?

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