Convergence is an approach to problem solving that integrates expertise from life sciences with physical, mathematical, and computational sciences,1 medicine, and engineering to form comprehensive synthetic frameworks that merge areas of knowledge from multiple fields to address specific challenges. Convergence builds on fundamental progress made within individual disciplines but represents a way of thinking about the process of research and the types of strategies that enable it as emerging scientific and societal challenges cut across disciplinary boundaries in these fields. The concept of convergence as represented in this report is thus meant to capture two dimensions: the convergence of the subsets of expertise necessary to address a set of research problems, and the formation of the web of partnerships involved in supporting such scientific investigations and enabling the resulting advances to be translated into new forms of innovation and new products.
Convergence represents a cultural shift for academic organizations that have been traditionally organized around discipline-based departments. The overall ecosystem needed to foster and sustain convergence draws not only on academic contributors but increasingly also on the cross-fertilization of ideas with stakeholders and partners from national laboratories, industry, clinical settings, and funding bodies, as well as
1 Throughout the rest of the report, the term “physical sciences” is commonly used as shorthand to include fields such as physics, chemistry, materials science, and the mathematical and computational sciences.
insights from economic, social, and behavioral sciences. The process of convergence is applicable to basic science discovery as well as translational application. Because it is commonly focused on achieving an outcome to a challenge at the frontiers of knowledge, many convergence efforts include an entrepreneurship component that leads to the development of a surrounding web of startup companies and economic innovation.
During the 20th century, major breakthroughs in advancing research-based knowledge and its applications to societal problems resulted from bringing together disciplines across physical sciences and engineering. Satellite-based global positioning systems that applied physical principles, including the development of accurate atomic clocks corrected for gravitational and atmospheric effects, now underpin vehicle navigation systems and provide location data for ubiquitous mobile phone and tablet computer apps (IOP 2009; Lucibella 2012). The combination of an image sensor such as a charge-coupled device that converts light into electrical signals, signal processing into images that can be stored and printed, and the ability to handle millions of pixels of data fueled the adoption of digital cameras, which were first marketed as consumer products in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The field of nanotechnology was built on the development of analytical technologies such as the scanning tunneling microscope as well as materials science and surface chemistry that enabled scientists to understand and control properties at the atomic scale. Today nanomaterials are found in products ranging from conductive inks for printed electronics to advanced batteries (NNI 2014). In each case integrating methods and tools from physical sciences and engineering were keys to both new knowledge and product innovation.
It has been postulated that the 21st century will become the “century of biology,” enabled by the impressive progress made in understanding the molecular basis of life and in applying that knowledge in new directions (Venter and Cohen 2004; Dyson 2007). Determination of the structure of DNA in 1953 led to the elucidation of the central dogma of biology and the development of principles relating DNA’s structure to the mechanisms of reproduction and translation, providing for the first time a unifying concept of how information was transmitted within the cell and between generations. Within 20 years, the scientific community had developed the ability to not only sequence and synthesize a gene but to combine genes and pieces of genes, founding the age of biotechnology. Fifty years on, the technology to sequence, computationally compare, and interact with the complexity of the human genome, and to do all of
that at relatively low cost, in turn spawned revolutions in areas ranging from genomics to bioinformatics. A critical dimension of this new century will be the further integration of life sciences into physical sciences and engineering fields, and vice versa. Making use of the wealth of information that molecular biology, genomics, and the other “omics” fields are now yielding will require contributions from multiple disciplines, moving beyond the first revolution of interdisciplinary molecular and cellular biology and the second revolution of genomics to a third revolution marked by transformative integration of life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, and engineering (Sharp and Langer 2011; Sharp et al. 2011) (see Figure 1-1).
The process of this convergence among life and health sciences, physical sciences, and engineering along with the increasing incorporation of contributions from social and economic sciences has the potential to fundamentally impact the organization and conduct of research in the com-
ing decades. Exploring why this process represents a promising frontier of new knowledge and what strategies can nurture it within institutional structures will constitute both an opportunity and an ongoing challenge for organizations across the research enterprise.
The goal of merging expertise to address complex problems is not new, and there are myriad examples in which researchers from multiple disciplines have worked together to solve problems that are beyond the scope of individual scientific areas. Most often described as an “interdisciplinary” approach, this goal has been a common feature of industrial research laboratories since the 1920s, and many research initiatives based in academic laboratories also rely on collaboration among investigators from more than one field. At the heart of the current momentum for convergence, however, is the realization that physical and biological sciences can each benefit from being more fully integrated into the intellectual milieu of the other. By working together in a coordinated and reciprocal manner, engineers might learn how diatoms create silica nanostructures in seawater at room temperature, something that humans can only accomplish at high temperatures. The production of such silica nano-structures may have wide-ranging applications in areas like novel sensors and improved batteries (Vrieling et al. 2005; Khripin et al. 2011; Luo et al. 2013). On the other hand, biologists might learn from the techniques that nanoengineers are developing for surmounting physical barriers, such as the endothelial cells that line blood vessels or that comprise the blood–brain barrier (Chrastina et al. 2011; Jain 2012; Patel et al. 2013; Tosi et al. 2013). This knowledge could lead to new targeted therapeutics delivered more efficiently in the body.
The terminology used to capture and discuss the shift in thinking required for convergence can be confusing because of varied interpretations of inter-, multi-, or transdisciplinary research. This report draws on definitions and framing concepts from the academic community that studies the organization and conduct of research (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3). The key message of convergence, however, is that merging ideas, approaches, and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge at a high level of integration is one crucial strategy for solving complex problems and addressing complex intellectual questions underlying emerging disciplines. Of necessity, convergence requires an open and inclusive culture, and requires practitioners to move beyond a single language to being conversant across disciplines and to building a
common set of concepts and metrics and a common understanding about goals.
In this way, convergence represents an expanded form of interdisciplinarity in which bodies of specialized knowledge comprise “macro” domains of research activity that together create a unified whole. When integrated effectively, these convergent macro domains offer the possibility of a new paradigm capable of generating ideas, discoveries, methodological and conceptual approaches, and tools that stimulate advances in basic research and lead to new inventions, innovations, treatment protocols, and forms and strategies of education and training. Such a comprehensive level of integration, without specifically using the term “convergence,” has been conceptualized in several recent reports (Figure 1-2).
When done well, convergence can represent a roadmap for innovation, and in particular for generating what has been called combinatorial innovation, a process that happens when a new technology or set of technologies offers a rich set of components that can be combined and recombined to create new products and services. These components catalyze a technology boom as innovators from multiple fields work through the possibilities.
In biomedicine, convergence will be one essential strategy for making progress in the treatment of disease to improve health outcomes while lowering costs, but a number of real-world problems do not respect disciplinary boundaries and a convergence approach has the potential to benefit many areas of research and development. Examples of such problems include meeting the world’s need for secure food supplies on a hotter, drier planet while reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture; providing new treatments for the chronic illnesses that are plaguing an increasing number of people worldwide; and directly attacking the mechanisms of aging in ways beyond addressing the individual diseases of aging. Chapter 2 highlights further examples of convergence in action.
Numerous reports over the past decade have explored the advances enabled when disciplines come together in integrated partnerships. Several address broad questions of how integrative and collaborative research can be fostered and what this means for the future of the American research enterprise. Others focus on specific research challenges at the intersection of the physical and life sciences or present a vision for the future of biology.
1.3.1 The Research Ecosystem Involves Multiple
Disciplines and Multiple Partners
A recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes the case that research is at a tipping point in a transition from ultra-specialization and defined problems to one in which integrative and collaborative approaches are needed to solve complex challenges. The report examines how research practices and policies will need to be revised in order to integrate over two planes necessary to address this pivotal point: across disciplines in the form of transdisciplinary and convergent science, and across stakeholders to produce additional synergy and account for the changing funding landscape (see Figure 1-2, top). The report argues that, without both of these planes, the process represented by convergence cannot effectively happen (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2013).
The report also emphasizes a need for cooperative, synergistic interactions among the academic, government, and private sectors throughout the discovery and development process. One of the report’s conclusions is that historical differences exist in the culture of physical sciences and engineering, on the one hand, and life sciences and medicine, on the other. While engineering and the physical sciences have a rich tradition of placing discovery and application on a continuum, the ends of this spectrum have traditionally been disconnected in the life sciences and medicine. For example, the report notes that most of the company spinoffs generated by the genomics revolution have been initiated by physical scientists and chemical engineers. As a result, the report argues that it will be imperative for many biologists to develop a fuller awareness and capacity for applications of research.
Similarly, a recent report from the National Research Council discusses the roles of research universities as assets for the future and recommends actions to maintain and further strengthen them for the benefit of U.S. science and technology (NRC 2012a). The report’s vision emphasizes many of the characteristics highlighted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, including a need for comprehensive partnerships among government, academia, and industry to “facilitate the transfer of knowledge, ideas, and technology to society and accelerate ‘time to innovation’ in order to achieve our national goals” (NRC 2012a, p. 11).
1.3.2 Convergence Will Accelerate Discovery and Innovation
An array of reports from the National Research Council (NRC) have examined key opportunities enabled by science that occur at the intersections of disciplines and have set forth the view that multiple fields are poised to make significant advances if communities collaborate across
life, physical, mathematical, computational, and engineering fields. These publications include Mathematics and 21st Century Biology (NRC 2005a), Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology (NRC 2005b), Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines (NRC 2008), A New Biology for the 21st Century (NRC 2009), Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences (NRC 2010), and Research Frontiers in Bioinspired Energy: Molecular-Level Learning from Natural Systems: A Workshop (NRC 2012b). Such reports, along with others from outside the NRC, provide compelling examples of what can be achieved by drawing together diverse areas of expertise and argue that activities conducted at the interface between life and physical sciences will continue to be an integral part of the scientific enterprise looking toward the future. A New Biology, in particular, argues that advances in biological research will accelerate if directed toward grand challenges and that integrating life sciences research with other disciplines will gain a deeper understanding of biological systems and achieve new biology-based solutions to critical societal problems in the areas of health, environment, energy, and food (see Figure 1-2, bottom).
Many of these earlier reports did not specifically adopt the terminology of “convergence” to refer to the goal of merging expertise across disciplines, although the concept they described is similar in intent. A specific vision for the convergence of life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, and engineering to advance health was more fully articulated by scientists and leaders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sharp and Langer 2011; Sharp et al. 2011). It has continued to capture the attention of scientists who practice at these convergent interfaces (Sharp and Langer 2013; Sharp and Leshner 2014).
1.3.3 Convergence Is About Science and Society
A recent report expands this concept of convergence to encompass the broad convergence of knowledge, technology, and society across multiple dimensions (Roco et al. 2013). Convergence is placed in the context of a creative “convergence–divergence” process that brings areas of knowledge together into a new system to spin off applications and elements that can in turn be recombined and integrated. Research activities from across a spectrum including pure basic research, use-inspired basic research, and “vision-inspired” basic research, as well as applied research, are needed throughout this repeating cycle (Figure 1-3). Although placing convergence in a very broad context, the report emphasizes a critical role of the merging of life and physical sciences expertise. In their chapter Implications: Human Health and Physical Potential, for example, Urban and Grodzinski state, “over the next ten years, the major scientific infrastruc-
ture needed will be an effort to define these ‘laws of biology’ within a convergence approach that nurtures engagement of the physics and physical sciences research communities” (Urban and Grodzinski 2013, p. 184).
1.3.4 Implementing Convergence Builds on Prior Reports
In order to be successful at harnessing the combined transformative potential of life and physical sciences with engineering, key stakeholders across the research enterprise need to think strategically about the policies necessary to support such efforts and how to implement and sustain them. The challenges inherent in creating new research, teaching, institutional, funding, partnership, and other structures likely to be required as part of successful convergence efforts can be enormous. The report Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, published by the National Research
Council almost a decade ago (NAS et al. 2004), lays a foundation for how collaborative scientific endeavors can be fostered and provides numerous recommendations, many of which can be extended for the purpose of convergence. In fact, the top three actions identified by 341 survey respondents in 2004 for institutions seeking to support interdisciplinary research (IDR) were “to foster a collaborative environment (26.5 percent), to provide faculty incentives (including hiring and tenure policies) that reflect and reward involvement in IDR (18.4 percent), and to provide seed money for IDR projects (11.1 percent)” (NAS et al. 2004, p. 270). These points continue to be strongly echoed in the committee’s data gathering for the present report.
Despite progress in establishing interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and convergent research programs and the existence of agency policies designed to support collaborative scientific endeavors, challenges clearly remain. The Roco et al. volume notes that “there has been a growing appreciation in scientific and academic communities worldwide that converging technologies…are likely to create important advances toward societal gain,” but the authors continue to raise the concern that “the R&D focus for converging technologies publications has remained reactive (or ‘coincidental’) to various opportunities for collaboration rather than being driven by a holistic, systematic, proactive approach towards promoting convergence” (Roco et al. 2013, p. 138). Organizations and practitioners wishing to undertake convergence face a lack of practical guidance in how to do it.
The present report does not seek to re-tread all of the ground covered by these prior activities. Rather, it revisits key themes they highlighted and provides tailored examples of strategies relevant to addressing the continuing challenges of fostering convergence among life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, and engineering in different settings. It also considers the opportunities and challenges that arise from expanding convergent research initiatives to include contributions from additional fields such as the economic and social sciences and humanities.
Now is an opportune time to consider steps that can be taken to foster convergence among biological, physical, and engineering sciences. Institutions continue to face a lack of guidance on how to establish effective programs, what challenges they are likely to encounter, and what strategies other organizations have used to solve the issues that arise. The present study was undertaken to help address this gap and to provide an opportunity for members of the research community to come
together and discuss their challenges. Responding to the messages from reports such as those above and the needs of their scientists and communities, institutions have increasingly moved to implement programs that foster convergence or are interested in how they can better facilitate convergent research. The number of research universities that are making investments in convergence is increasing and so, too, is the diversity of institutional practices being used to facilitate convergence, ranging from new educational modules (see Section 4.6), to cluster hiring (Section 4.4), to establishing multidisciplinary research institutes (Section 4.3). The success of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative at catalyzing the formation of research teams that start new avenues of investigation is yet another example of the growing appreciation of the role of convergence among many in both the research and policy worlds (Porter et al. 2008; NAS et al. 2013).
In parallel, the federal government has announced funding for several large convergent initiatives focused around specific research areas. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative is a multiagency effort led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) with significant support from private research institutions and foundations. It seeks to generate new understanding about how the brain works and, to succeed, it will require convergence among fields such as neuroscience, nanoscience, synthetic biology, genetics, optics, computer science, and informatics. The Tissue Chip Project, a collaboration among NIH, DARPA, and the Food and Drug Administration, aims to foster convergence among tissue engineering, cell biology, microfluidics, analytical chemistry, physiology, drug development, and regulatory science to develop three-dimensional chips that mimic human physiology. NSF’s Integrated Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education program, the National Cancer Institute’s Alliance for Cancer Nanotechnology and Physical Sciences Oncology Centers, and DARPA’s Quantitative Effects in Biological Environments are other examples.
Despite strong models, however, a number of cultural and institutional roadblocks slow implementation of convergence and creation of a self-sustaining ecosystem of convergence. The committee’s task was to explore the mechanisms used by organizations and programs to support convergent research and to distill messages that arose into a report that seeks to provide informed guidance for the community (see Box 1-1 for the full statement of task and Appendix A for committee member biographies).
A primary mechanism by which the committee gathered information on relevant programs and activities was its workshop on “Key Challenges
The National Research Council will appoint an expert committee to explore the application of “convergence” approaches to biomedical research and beyond. This approach is intended to realize the untapped potential from the merger of multiple disciplines to address key challenges that require such close collaborations. As its primary information-gathering activity, the committee will convene a workshop to examine examples or models drawn, if possible, from a range of ongoing programs, both large and small, public and private, in which such approaches are being implemented. The goal of the workshop is to facilitate understanding of how convergence in biomedical and related research can be fostered effectively through institutional and programmatic structures and policies, education and training programs, and funding mechanisms. The resulting report will summarize the lessons learned on successful approaches to implementing convergence in different types of research institutions.
in the Implementation of Convergence,” held September 16-17, 2013. A cross section of over 100 participants ranging from graduate students to senior institutional leaders to scientists from foundations and agencies gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. (see Appendix B). The group discussed examples of programs that had been created and what has worked and not worked in varied settings, with an emphasis on strategies to tackle practical needs and challenges in areas such as organizational infrastructure, faculty development, education and training, and the formation of interinstitutional partnerships. The result of the workshop discussions and additional research undertaken by the committee is the following report, which seeks to harness the promise of the concept of convergence and channel it into the policies, structures, and networks that will better enable it to realize its goals.
The report explores convergence in context and in action—examining why it is a paradigm for generating innovative science, why and how institutions and agencies can foster cultures of convergence, and why further coordination among the academic, clinical, industrial, and funding communities interested in convergence is needed. Chapter 2 provides examples of convergence in action that demonstrate the promise of con-
vergent thinking in advancing knowledge and in achieving problem-based solutions at the interfaces of life, medical, physical, and engineering sciences, and beyond. The chapter also highlights some of the ways that a convergence ecosystem cross-fertilizes interactions with industry partners to help stimulate biotechnology innovation. Chapter 3 presents a snapshot of research in some of the foundational areas that inform an understanding of convergence, especially transdisciplinarity and team science and new approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. The report does not attempt to provide an authoritative review of these rich and diverse fields. Rather, it seeks to make science practitioners and institutional leaders aware of complementary bodies of knowledge that may provide further insights into ways they can meet the challenge of nurturing environments in which convergence occurs. Chapter 4 builds on the examples presented during the project’s data-gathering workshop as it begins to formulate a picture of how convergence can be fostered in organizational settings. Finally, Chapter 5 provides the committee’s overall conclusions and recommendations.
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