Monday, February 18, 2008

Einstein and Collaboration in Research

Collaboration in clinical research (and an oblique discussion of a recent biography of Albert Einstein)

As for many endeavors, collaboration is critical to achievement of success for clinical research projects. Most successful clinical investigation undertakings will involve many people: planners, promoters, budgeters, interviewers, organizers, collectors, analyzers, writers, presenters, cheerleaders (and credit-takers!). The names for these roles may vary, but usually their shared efforts all contribute to project success.

Collaboration and partnerships exist on many levels, from the large scale (institutions such as the University of Kansas Hospital, the Research Institute, Mid America Cardiology, the School of Allied Health, other local and regional entities or collaborating medical centers across the country or around the world) to the basic level of a research nurse coordinator talking with a patient’s physician about enrollment in a study. In many cases we partner with the medical industry for new devices or medications, or with other investigators in the medical center who may work in clinical pharmacology, preventive medicine, or the school of nursing.

I recently read an excellent biography of the great theoretical physicist and thinker, Albert Einstein. (Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson). Undoubtedly one of the most brilliant human beings in history (he was named man of the 20th century by Time magazine), he made incredible contributions to our knowledge of science ranging from the atom to the entire universe. His field theories of special and general relativity are responsible for our basic understandings of energy, the wave and particle properties of matter, the interactions of space and time, and the relationships between the various basic forces the govern the universe. These insights have led to countless practical applications that have shaped our individual lives and the course of human history.

However, it is evident that the majority of Einstein’s really major contributions were made early in life. Although he undeniably was an independent thinker who conceptualized his major theories by himself (his famous “thought experiments”) it is also clear that he benefited greatly from the insights, support, and interactions of a variety of others including fellow students, certain professors, friends, contemporary scientists, and prior giants in the fields of physics and mathematics such as Planck and Maxwell. His first wife was herself a pioneer as one of the first women to take training as a physicist at the university level, and served as a sounding board and supporter for Einstein’s ideas.

As Einstein became older, he became more isolated in pursuit of his research, with his interactions with his peers (Bohr, Heisenberg) rarely collaborative and more often argumentative. He began to ignore new developments in theoretical physics (strong and weak nuclear forces) and spent much of his later career attempting to discredit the implications of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty that they imply (God does not throw dice). He never completed his work on a unified field theory, which for the last 20 years of his life was largely a solitary endeavor.

I suggest that one message to be obtained from reading about this great man’s life is the importance of maintaining collaboration and partnerships in research efforts. No one person will likely have the brilliance and power of Einstein’s intellect or his gift of insight. We need to work together to pool our talents and energy to achieve our investigative goals and to enhance our research undertakings. Sharing ideas, supporting each other’s efforts, and working together for common goals are necessary substrates for successful clinical research.

Jim Vacek
February, 2008