Biology is at a point of inflection. Years of research have generated detailed information about the components of the complex systems that characterize life—genes, cells, organisms, ecosystems––and this knowledge has begun to fuse into greater understanding of how all those components work together as systems. Powerful tools are allowing biologists to probe complex systems in ever-greater detail, from molecular events in individual cells to global biogeochemical cycles. Integration within biology and increasingly fruitful collaboration with physical, earth, and computational scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are making it possible to predict and control the activities of biological systems in ever greater detail. . . . [T]he life sciences have reached a point where a new level of inquiry is possible, a level that builds on the strengths of the traditional research establishment but provides a framework to draw on those strengths and focus them on large questions whose answers would provide many practical benefits. (NRC, 2009b:12-13)
The value of integration across disciplines to addressing challenges in biomedicine was also highlighted by President Obama in remarks to the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.
Because of recent progress–-not just in biology, genetics and medicine, but also in physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering—we have the potential to make enormous progress against diseases in the coming decades…. [w]e can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s underway today; undertaking public projects–-in the spirit of the Human Genome Project—to create data and capabilities that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories; and identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to rapidly translating scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and therapeutics that serve patients. (White House, 2009b)
Although the concept of converging or integrating biology with other disciplines is not new and reflects approaches that many individual scientists are already taking, it remains challenging to clearly define. One definition was presented in a white paper on the topic issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011 (Sharp et al., 2011). The authors state that convergence is not only the small area of intersection between fields, but also a new research model that represents “the merging of distinct technologies, processing disciplines, or devices into a unified whole that creates a host of new pathways and opportunities. It involves the coming together of different fields of study—particularly engineering, physical sciences, and life sciences—through collaboration among research groups and integration of approaches that were originally viewed as distinct and potentially contradictory” (Sharp et al., 2011:4) (see Figure 4.1).
Although the language used in describing this model varies somewhat from author to author, integration or convergence entails adapting