Translating the “why” of undertaking convergence into the practical “how” of fostering it in individual institutional settings is a key question for the academic leaders and administrators whose responsibility this task will be. Institutions range widely in their missions, sizes, available budgets, and other characteristics with the result that no single template can be followed. The report draws largely, although not exclusively, from examples within academic institutions. It is important to recognize that national laboratories, nonprofit research institutes, industry, and other settings that contain experts from multiple disciplines in proximity to one another with access to facilities and instrumentation, and that contribute to the translation and implementation of research advances, are also relevant partners and are locations in which convergence can effectively occur.
This chapter explores areas where challenges are frequently encountered, identifies examples of strategies that have been used by different types of institutions and with different budget implications, and begins to articulate a set of cultural and structural characteristics linked to successful convergence programs. Many challenges encountered by convergence programs and strategies to address the barriers that arise echo those reported for facilitating interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or team science efforts more generally. Table 4-1 provides highlights of common challenge areas and indicates how the concepts apply to convergence. The subsequent sections of the chapter explore these and other areas further.
|Common Challenge||Recommendations (NAS et al. 2004)||Perspective of this Report (2014)|
|Establishing effective organizational cultures, structures, and governance||
Institutions should explore alternative administrative structures and business models that facilitate IDR across traditional organizational structures; institutions should develop equitable and flexible budgetary and cost-sharing policies that support IDR.
Allocations of resources from high-level administration to interdisciplinary units, to further their formation and continued operation, should be considered in addition to resource allocations of discipline-driven departments and colleges.
Alternative structures must harmonize with the existing culture of investigator and laboratory autonomy. Convergent science fields provide a starting point to organize around compelling scientific and societal challenges.
Factors such as differences in cost recovery models among schools of science, engineering, and medicine can complicate intrauniversity partnerships. Laboratories and core facilities are expensive to start up and maintain (see Sections 4.3 and 4.5).
|Addressing faculty development and promotion needs||
Recruitment practices, from recruitment of graduate students to hiring of faculty members, should be revised to include recruitment across department and college lines.
The traditional practices and norms in hiring of faculty members and in making tenure decisions should be revised to take into account more fully the values inherent in IDR activities.
Promotion and tenure is still obtained through a primary departmental affiliation for many faculty members undertaking convergent research or associated with convergence institutes.
Differences in faculty research and service expectations among science, engineering, and medical faculty may complicate collaborations, although multiple journal authors and diverse research contributors are already a norm within many science fields (see Section 4.4).
|Common Challenge||Recommendations (NAS et al. 2004)||Perspective of this Report (2014)|
|Creating education and training programs||
Educators should facilitate IDR by providing educational and training opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars, such as relating foundation courses, data gathering and analysis, and research activities to other fields of study and to society at large.
Institutions should support interdisciplinary education and training for students, postdoctoral scholars, researchers, and faculty by providing such mechanisms as undergraduate research opportunities, faculty team-teaching credit, and IDR management training.
Curricula at the undergraduate level need to meaningfully integrate relevant physical, mathematical, computational, and engineering concepts and examples into life science courses and vice versa in order to provide a solid foundation for undertaking convergence.
Opportunities are needed to effectively fill in gaps in training and expertise or to learn fundamentals of a new area to foster a common language and understanding. These opportunities are needed at the graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty levels (see Section 4.6).
|Forming stakeholder partnerships||
Academic institutions should develop new and strengthen existing policies and practices that lower or remove barriers to interdisciplinary research and scholarship, including developing joint programs with industry and government and nongovernment organizations.
Continuing social science, humanities, and information science–based studies of the complex social and intellectual processes that make for successful IDR are needed to deepen the understanding of these processes and to enhance the prospects for the creation and management of successful programs in specific fields and local institutions.
Establishing extramural agreements is complex and may be affected by factors such as different leadership, funding, and cost-sharing models, or different traditions and expectations around issues such as patent development and intellectual property protection.
Taking full advantage of the possibilities enabled by convergence increasingly draws upon contributions from fields such as the economic and social sciences, which have their own cultures and norms that must be considered (see Section 4.7).\
|Common Challenge||Recommendations (NAS et al. 2004)||Perspective of this Report (2014)|
|Obtaining sustainable funding||
Funding organizations should recognize and take into consideration in their programs and processes the unique challenges faced by IDR with respect to risk, organizational mode, and time.
Funding organizations should regularly evaluate, and if necessary redesign, their proposal and review criteria to make them appropriate for interdisciplinary activities.
Congress should continue to encourage federal research agencies to be sensitive to maintaining a proper balance between the goal of stimulating interdisciplinary research and the need to maintain robust disciplinary research.
Government support is one component of obtaining funding for convergence. Many convergence programs have also obtained critical support from sources such as private philanthropists and foundations interested in advancing science.
Income from startup companies and venture capital investors, which may be part of convergence ecosystems, may also provide support (see Section 4.8).
NOTE: As used in the table, IDR stands for interdisciplinary research. The prior recommendations cited in the table are drawn from NAS et al. (2004, pp. 5-7).
The focus of the committee’s discussions and data-gathering was on fostering convergence in organizations, particularly in ways that interconnect and integrate the expertise of multiple investigators. Before turning to examples of these challenges and strategies, it is important to emphasize the characteristics of individual practitioners that facilitate convergence.
Convergence builds on a base of strong disciplinary research but demands that individuals be versed in multiple disciplines—for scientists to be “multilingual” citizens—to most effectively integrate a diversity of approaches to problem solving. The classic metaphor of T-shaped persons (Guest 1991)—those with an ability to collaborate across a broad set of disciplines, but who maintain a depth of expertise in a single field—is being extended to include π-shaped or comb-shaped skill sets that are
invaluable for doing science in the 21st century (Figure 4-1). This does not imply that a scientist must obtain advanced degrees in multiple fields or, conversely, will be limited to being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” A study of innovation at 3M explored roles within the company played by individuals exhibiting technical depth, breadth, or both qualities (Boh et al. 2014). The authors reported that individuals who functioned as successful system integrators developed deep expertise in core domains and extended their expertise over time as they understood how their domains interacted with other disciplines and they applied their knowledge to new challenges. “Thus, individuals learn to recombine existing components in novel ways while simultaneously building up new connections and new cognitive nodes of knowledge” (Boh et al. 2014, p. 356). Inventors in the company who had deep expertise were associated with more citations and patents, but inventors with both breadth and depth were associated with bringing value to the company by converting inventions into products. This type of multilingual fluency, developed over time, is at the heart of convergence.
Convergent research can also emerge from within individual laboratories and research groups, not only by bridging among them as part of larger-scale convergence initiatives. A research group may itself include members with a diversity of expertise and be tackling challenges at the boundaries of multiple fields. A common way in which a principal investigator (PI) brings new perspectives to his or her laboratory is by hiring a postdoctoral fellow or staff scientist who brings the skills to address an interesting new dimension of a research problem. Another tactic is by taking on a graduate student who brings to the program a different background. These are important strategies for fostering convergence. The individual backgrounds of the PI and research team members may also be cross-disciplinary in nature based on the combination of diverse
educational and training experiences each has received. Over time, as new unified knowledge domains are created from the convergence of existing ones, individual persons and research groups with converged expertise will become the norm. An example is the discipline of molecular biology, which originated from cell biology and biochemistry but is now a unified discipline practiced by numerous individuals and research groups.
A central hypothesis of convergence is that diverse teams are able to generate innovative solutions to complex problems. Indeed, there is evidence that teams composed of individuals with different perspectives on problem solving will outperform groups that are more homogeneous in their approaches (Hong and Page 2004; Horowitz and Horowitz 2007). There is also evidence for increased creativity in more diverse teams (Stahl et al. 2010). Consequently, an environment where opinions—especially dissenting opinions—are openly expressed, where diversity is valued, and opposing ideas are respectfully communicated may be vital to the success of a convergence program. Such environments enable groups to think beyond embedded paradigms and collaborate to uncover creative solutions to difficult problems.
Diversity takes multiple forms, and a distinction can be made between diversity in problem-solving approaches (functional diversity) and diversity in demographic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds (identity diversity). While both types are important for a successful future ecosystem of science and innovation, the latter appears to have a complex relationship with team performance. While identity diversity can lead to challenges in social integration and communication within a team, a group’s perspective on diversity can mitigate and may even reverse these effects, yielding greater creativity and satisfaction (Stahl et al. 2010; Ely and Thomas 2001). As Section 3.2 discussed, functioning in an environment with diverse views and perspectives can be uncomfortable. Therefore, adopting inclusive attitudes toward diversity and using management strategies to foster diversity are essential for maximizing the return on investment of convergence efforts.
Developing an open, inclusive culture that values diversity, is flexible in the way it approaches problems, and has a common language is critical for success in any research effort that involves contributions from multiple disciplines. This process takes time. As one participant in the
committee’s data-gathering workshop noted, “We’re five years into this initiative and I would argue that it will take another five years to actually get the kind of common language we need” (Anna Barker, Workshop on Key Challenges in the Implementation of Convergence, September 16-17, 2013, Washington, DC).
Leaders at multiple levels of an institution play significant roles in this process and in the ultimate success of convergence programs. A perceived focus on short-term financial considerations and administrative resistance to working through barriers to long-term convergent efforts is one obstacle identified during the committee’s data gathering. Leaders who are committed to breaking out of academic divisions, willing to undertake the hard work of bringing people from different disciplines and partner organizations together, and supportive of policies that encourage convergent research are necessary. Because convergence takes different forms at different institutions, there is an opportunity to build from each institution’s own strengths regarding personnel and leadership capacity at multiple levels. University presidents cannot make convergence happen by directive, just as an engaged group of faculty members cannot create a new transdisciplinary initiative without support from university leadership.
Who serves as the head of a convergence initiative also takes different forms in different places. At the Wyss Institute, for example, Donald Ingber is a core faculty member and continues to conduct active research, an attribute that he reports helps gain the respect of participating scientists. At QB3, which connects 220 laboratories across three university campuses, Regis Kelly has closed his own faculty laboratory to devote himself full time to the process of bridging academic domains and indicates that he could use more team members to contribute to this effort. And at the University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex, the university selected David Canter, a former senior vice president of global research and development at Pfizer, rather than a distinguished faculty member, to serve as the director.
A strong governance system is characteristic of the convergence programs the committee examined and it is important to be deliberate about developing governance for these complex efforts. At MIT, for example, the committee learned that members of convergence-focused institutes shared responsibility for deciding who joined the institution, how funding was secured, and how students and postdoctoral fellows were mentored (Sharp 2013). Convergence programs can be large undertakings and drawing on professional or nonacademic program management expertise can also play a useful role (Canter 2013; Ingber 2013). In addition to committed leadership and faculty, creating ample opportunities for individuals to share ideas, develop an understanding of disciplinary differences,
and foster appreciation of the intellectual and technical contributions that different fields bring to bear on a problem is an essential component highlighted by many participants.
4.3.1 Strategy: Organizing Around a Common
Theme, Problem, or Scientific Challenge
One mechanism institutions have employed to foster a shared sense of community and facilitate convergence is to organize an institute’s or center’s mission around core scientific problems that require a convergent approach to address. A few examples include the following:
- Institute for Molecular Engineering, University of Chicago: The Institute, established in 2011, focuses on understanding matter at a molecular level and using chemical, biological, mechanical, optical, and electrical building blocks to create functional systems that can address global issues. Its conducts research around current themes, which include Immuno-Engineering and Cancer, Molecular Engineering of Water Resources, and Quantum Information and Technology (University of Chicago 2014).
- The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University: The Wyss Institute, launched in 2009, is designed to foster innovation and technology translation by leveraging biological design principles to develop new innovations in engineering that address challenges in health care, sustainability, and other areas. Projects are organized around six enabling platform technologies: adaptive material technologies, anticipatory medical and cellular devices, bioinspired robotics, synthetic biology, biomimetic micro-systems, and programmable nanomaterials (Ingber 2013).
- Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute: The Janelia Farm Research Campus, which opened in 2006, represents an example in which a convergent research culture was created from the ground up outside the confines of an existing university structure. The campus is focused around two areas: identifying the basic principles by which nervous systems store and process information and developing new optical imaging technologies capable of imaging live systems at high temporal and spatial resolution (Rubin 2013).
4.3.2 Strategy: Implementing Management Structures Tailored
to the Challenges of Convergence in Each Institution
Management factors have been shown to affect the success of research centers that bring together expertise across disciplines and organizations (Boardman and Ponomariov 2014). Convergence programs often involve faculty members and students from multiple fields, technical staff operating core facilities, program and business development managers, end-user partners like clinicians, and others with diverse skills and career trajectories. Different convergence initiatives employ different management structures to support their activities, based on their own organizational systems and goals. Some programs function as regular units of a parent university, while others operate as their own 501(c)(3) organizations. One descriptive example, drawn from the workshop, is below.
- Wyss Institute, Harvard University: The Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is owned by Harvard University but is governed by its own board of directors. The board is chaired by the Harvard provost and includes the deans of engineering and medicine, faculty representatives from the school of arts and sciences, the dean of engineering at Boston University, the CEOs of partner hospitals, industry representatives, and the Institute donor and his selected representatives. It includes an operating committee that makes resource allocation decisions, composed of the faculty who lead the Institute’s six technology platform areas. It has also developed an Advance Technology Team of experts with industrial experience, who form a partnership with Institute faculty and help sustain institutional memory as products move through the stages of research and product development. Finally, the Institute includes an administrative management team with business development and startup experience. This structure reportedly works for Wyss as it leverages expertise from faculty who want their work to have impact, but who want to focus on the research side, and those with complementary business and manufacturing expertise. Wyss was not initially a separate 501(c) (3) organization—this change was driven by a need for greater independence from existing university constraints on issues such as hiring and salaries and became a condition for further funding from the primary donor (Ingber 2013).
4.3.3 Strategy: Fostering Opportunities to
Interact Formally and Informally
Many methods can be used encourage spontaneous conversation and build connections among students and investigators across areas of expertise. Among the institutions and programs explored by the committee, communal activities used to break down interpersonal barriers included seminars, workshops, retreats, and parties. Several other possibilities are discussed in Section 4.5 on building design. Because faculty members are often busy with the demands of research, teaching, fundraising, and service commitments, a significant amount of collaboration appears to result from the connections students and postdoctoral researchers make among themselves that identify shared tools to address research challenges. As suggested below, students and younger researchers may be a particularly valuable source of ideas and energy for these events. It is worth noting that many of these types of activities can be implemented in a budget-conscious fashion:
- Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers can be empowered to share their knowledge with each other in peer-to-peer learning environments. At the MIT Koch Center, the Engineering Genius Bar serves as a place where biologists interact with and learn about tools and thought processes used by their peer engineers. The Koch Institute similarly has a “Doctor Is In” program that draws on the expertise of visiting physicians from Harvard, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, or Massachusetts General Hospital (Jacks 2013; Sharp 2013).
- The Arizona State University Ignite program (Ignite @ ASU) is a student organization that organizes events “to gather, share ideas, connect with others and create change. It features rapid-fire 5 minute presentations that brings ASU students, faculty, staff and community members together to build more connected, vibrant communities” (ASU 2012; Barker 2013).
- Yale University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, are involved in joint research activities and have made efforts to incentivize student collaboration and innovation. A recent Yale–Weizmann Institute ‘encounter’ awarded small grants (on the order of $10,000) to self-assembled teams of students who proposed interdisciplinary, trans-institutional projects. The use of seed funding to catalyze convergent activities is discussed further in Section 4.8.
Many convergence initiatives are housed within universities and include faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and students as core participants. The configuration of academic institutions into subject-area departments is the bedrock of the current U.S. research infrastructure and traditional academic reward systems are based in disciplines. As a result, an institution seeking to foster convergence and implement structures to support it must consider what implications this goal will have for its current system. As Chapter 3 indicated, there are cultural similarities and differences among life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering that may influence the creation of such interconnections. Different institutions have addressed this challenge in different ways, but there are examples that can be considered by an institution whether it chooses to radically reevaluate its existing department structure or to maintain that structure and to establish policies that provide bridges across it.
4.4.1 Strategy: Radical Reorganization
A few organizations that support convergent research have undertaken radical reorganizations of department-based university systems or have been established outside traditional academic structures:
- Arizona State University (ASU) implemented significant changes to its organizational structure in order to embed the concept of convergence as a foundational element. Within 2 years of arriving at ASU, president Michael Crow had dissolved almost all of the existing academic departments and in their place created 23 new schools and initiatives such as the Beyond, Biodesign, and Complex Adaptive Systems Institutes. The goal of this effort was to create a new ecosystem to foster knowledge building and use-inspired research that was very different than a department-based structure (Barker 2013).
- Janelia Farm Research Campus, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), involved constructing an entirely new institution for convergent science. The approach did not require changing an existing culture but rather creating a new one with no departmental affiliations or tenure. Janelia Farm scientists do not seek external funding and are required to be on-site 75 percent of the time so that they are available for collaboration. Janelia’s approach attracts individuals who are willing to take a risk for a potentially high payoff from working in a transdisciplinary
environment in which half the people had initial training in biology and the others had training in physics, computer science, and engineering along with a sizable percentage from industry. Each lead researcher has a small group that shares resources and collaborates with other groups by combining skills to tackle common problems. Reportedly, when HHMI was in the process of creating Janelia Farm, many researchers commented that the facility would have difficulty attracting top talent because of the lack of a tenure mechanism. Instead, the organization views the lack of a tenure track as a filter for those who would not fit the culture that HHMI was creating. Since it opened, Janelia Farm has attracted researchers who gave up tenure at major universities along with scientists from industry who wanted to work in an academic environment without the pressure to generate publications and obtain outside funding that is required by tenure-granting institutions (Rubin 2013).
The example of the Janelia Farm Research Campus and similar types of non-profit research institutes provides an interesting case to consider when thinking about the broader implications of models for fostering convergence and how they might scale. Janelia itself has no disciplinary departments and tenure structure, but relies on the infrastructure of university-based training programs to produce those with the interests and skills to thrive in the type of collaborative environment it has created. As a result, multiple and complementary models to foster disciplinary and convergent research will be needed in the overall research enterprise. The example also highlights the important role of education and training programs to produce future convergence participants (see Section 4.6).
4.4.2 Strategy: Working With and Across Existing Departments
With the exception of institutions such as ASU that have eliminated traditional department structures or organizations such as Janelia Farm or the Institute for Systems Biology1 that were established outside of such environments, most universities and research centers maintain a department-based system. Finding successful ways to leverage the knowledge within disciplines and to navigate the relationship between departments and convergence programs is therefore a critical part of the success of such programs.
Interdepartmental institutes and centers that can be nimble in their
focus are one option for supporting convergence within a university framework that includes disciplinary departments. Jacobs (2013) reports that the top 25 research universities in the U.S. average more than 100 research centers, many of which are organized in discipline-crossing ways. Many research universities are thus hybrids of discipline-based departments and structures that cross various boundaries.
To be successful, however, mechanisms that address faculty hiring, cost sharing, and other logistical challenges need to be considered. If researchers and administrators feel that the motivating philosophy of convergence attacks the primacy of the individual investigator, this can provide one potential barrier to success. Fernando Martinez of the University of Arizona’s BIO5 noted that faculty members sometimes voice a concern that convergent research diverts funding from investigator-initiated basic research or that it is primarily product oriented rather than knowledge oriented in nature. He views this as a false dichotomy and reported that BIO5 works to emphasize convergent research as a different form of the academic culture of individuality and autonomy, which are essential for creativity, and as part of the knowledge development continuum (Martinez 2013). Other examples of how programs have addressed these challenges include the following:
- Bio-X, Stanford University: Bio-X is one of 18 interdisciplinary institutes at Stanford that each have a dean equivalent to those of the university’s schools, resources including program and education funds and laboratory buildings supported by annual budgets allocated from a central university fund, and together form a matrix crossing the university. Strong departments and schools are reportedly a necessity for Bio-X and the other institutes since hiring and promotion remains the function of these units, though it is possible to provide incentives for departments to hire faculty with certain skills or experience. To support departmental engagement and bridge-building and to encourage faculty to accept the convergent research paradigm, program funds are not obtained by “taxing” participating schools or departments. An evaluation of the Bio-X program, conducted by Daniel McFarland and Woody Powell of the Stanford School of Education, found that interactions among faculty across the university increased dramatically in the years since Bio-X was established. An interactome plot reveals that Bio-X has created a horizontal web that stretches across school and departmental boundaries (see Figure 4-2) (Shatz 2013).
- Wyss Institute: All Wyss Institute faculty members continue to hold academic appointments in their home institutions and
departments or schools and to meet the requirements of those departments in addition to those of the institute. This is a common practice at many convergence institutes. Though this can be an extra burden, it means that anyone who joins the institute is committed to its mission. Almost all institute members maintain their original laboratories and no faculty member has dedicated space at the Wyss Institute; space is allocated to projects, not to individual faculty. As reported during the workshop, this balance enables participating faculty to maintain the unique cultures of their own laboratories while benefitting from the strong transdisciplinary culture of the institute. The Wyss Institute also conducts co-recruitment of faculty with academic deans and department chairs, and reports that combining recruitment in this manner serves as a major attractor. Institute faculty are on 3-year renewable appointments that can be terminated, in which case the faculty member would return to his or her home department (Ingber 2013).
- The Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Princeton University: The Lewis-Sigler Institute houses 12 to 15 research groups
and also includes nonresident affiliated faculty. Faculty members hold their tenure and tenure-track appointments in participating university departments including molecular biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, and chemical engineering. The Institute also supports early career scientists as 5-year Lewis-Sigler Fellows (Princeton University 2013).
- Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, University of Missouri: The Bond Center involves the participation of 41 faculty investigators who hold appointments in 12 academic units drawn from the Colleges of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Arts & Science; Engineering; Human Environmental Sciences; Veterinary Medicine; and the School of Medicine. The Center’s website states that “as a requirement for membership in the Bond Life Sciences Center, researchers have agreed to exploit opportunities for novel research approaches via collaboration with LSC colleagues and others. In return, the LSC shares salary support of LSC investigators with their academic units and offers state-of-the-art facilities and a seed grant program to foster innovation” (University of Missouri 2014).
Regardless of whether or not they establish formal institutes and centers, institutions can encourage teams of researchers to come together in a more ad hoc manner, to develop ideas to attack with convergent science approaches, and to operate on ground rules that the team sets. To foster such a strategy, institutional incentives include catalytic seed funding, workspace, and perhaps access to core facilities. Examples of project-based seed funding incentives that have been employed by institutions to encourage convergent research are discussed further in Section 4.8.
Cluster hiring, where departments work together to coordinate hiring of faculty who will participate in convergent activities, can be an additional budget-conscious tool for supporting the growth of such programs. By bringing on board a cohort of several faculty members around a theme, cluster hires can enable a convergence initiative to get under way faster and can help shift institutional cultures toward a collaborative mindset. For example, at the University of Arizona cluster hires have reportedly occurred or are occurring in three areas that complement existing strengths: the merger of information technology and plant sciences, imaging and microscopy, and targeted drug development (Martinez 2013). Many other universities have undertaken cluster hiring initiatives to foster interdisciplinary research, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014a) and the University of Iowa (2014), and to build capacity in specific scientific areas, such as the Penn Nano Cluster-Hiring Initiative
(University of Pennsylvania 2014). Even using a strategy of cluster hiring, however, many faculty continue to obtain tenure through a home department and therefore academic promotion and tenure processes will need to account for convergent research.
4.4.3 Strategy: Embedding Support for Interdisciplinarity
in the Promotion and Tenure Process
As was made clear by examples such as HHMI’s Janelia Farm, researchers are willing to work in novel environments to engage in convergent research, even without the option of tenure. However, concerns over adequately accounting for participation in convergent research during promotion and tenure decisions remains a topic of great interest for many scientists working at convergent interfaces. A reward structure that emphasizes individual investigator-driven research and publication and questions of how credit is assigned for multi-investigator-led projects represent widely acknowledged challenges to any form of interdisciplinary or collaborative research, including convergence (see Box 4-1).
Institutions will need to provide clear guidance to support faculty engaged in convergent research. Universities can include expectations of collaboration during the hiring process and department leadership can make recommendations to young faculty regarding team-based projects in which they are participating. This establishes a basis for collaborative work. Tenure and promotion committees will also need guidance that enables them to fairly evaluate convergent as well as unidisciplinary research, teaching, student mentorship, and service efforts. One concrete step that can be taken toward addressing obstacles to convergent research is for tenure and promotion committees to adopt specific criteria that recognize contributions to such activities. Tenure and promotion committees can also solicit letters from faculty members’ senior collaborators, something that is not done traditionally, or ad hoc committee members outside a primary department could be appointed to evaluate the faculty member’s convergent research. Funding agencies may be able to contribute as well by including language in requests for proposals indicating that collaborative outputs such as coauthored journal articles are appropriate products. When making promotion and tenure decisions, a faculty member’s impact in the research community beyond outputs such as papers and patents, such as changing an approach to a problem or opening up new avenues of investigation, should also be considered. New types of reward mechanisms might even be envisioned, although further evidence of the impact of such prizes and awards would need to be explored (see Box 4-2). Messages from university leadership as well as formal policy changes may be required, particularly if there is a real or perceived bias
Traditional academic promotion and tenure language generally focuses on individual scientific achievement and lacks explicit criteria for demonstrating and evaluating contributions from convergent research, particularly contributions made as part of team efforts. Typical promotion and tenure language may also be less well adapted to assessing activities that extend beyond basic science discovery to translational application, which is a common feature of convergence activities. The need for institutional policies that address boundary-crossing and/or collaborative research such as that represented by convergence is a well-recognized challenge (NAS et al. 2004; NRC 2005b; Klein 2010b). As reported to the NRC Committee on the Science of Team Science, a survey of promotion and tenure language from 42 responding institutions that received National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical and Translational Science Awards revealed that a quarter did not have language specific to collaborative, interdisciplinary, or team science. The remaining 32 institutions recognized these types of activities in various ways, such as by recognizing that interdisciplinary or team science plays a role in advancing science or by addressing how to demonstrate contributions when assembling a promotion and tenure dossier (Hall 2013).
Guidance and best practice suggestions for promotion and tenure processes are available from groups such as the Computing Research Association and the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (Pollack and Snir 2008; NCSE 2014). Individual universities also provide examples that can be drawn on or adapted. The 2013 manual from the University of Southern California’s Committee on Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure (USC 2013), for example, includes sections specific to interdisciplinary research and collaborative research. In part, these include the following:
Department and School committees evaluating interdisciplinary work should try to value appropriately publications outside of the home discipline and its usual journals. In evaluating the candidate’s teaching and mentoring activities, they should consider interdisciplinary graduate teaching and co-teaching, as well as advising or co-advising graduate students outside the home department. The committee should make special effort to understand other disciplines’ customs on co-authorship, sequence of authors, and the use of conferences, journals, or monographs as premier outlets.
UCAPT will use appropriate flexibility in reviewing interdisciplinary dossiers. UCAPT sits in disciplinary panels and can assign a dossier to a different panel or can use mixed panels, ad hoc committees, or special consultants as needed (USC 2013, section 2.9(c), pp. 13-14).
on tenure and promotion committees against team-based science or dismissal of contributions to a team-based project, grant, or paper. At the same time, faculty members must be able to clearly explain the roles they play in convergent research efforts that involve multiple participants. Two examples drawn from the workshop illustrate the challenges:
The creation of a motion picture is a transdisciplinary undertaking involving the efforts of writers, actors, photographers, editors, costume designers, lighting and set technicians, publicists, marketers, and film distributors. Through the Oscars, the industry recognizes excellence in individual achievement (i.e., best actor or best screenplay) as well as collective accomplishment (best picture) and lifetime excellence (a lifetime achievement award). Major scientific awards like the Nobel Prize generally recognize breakthroughs made by individual researchers and their laboratories. Nobel Prize traditions, for example, stipulate that only a maximum of three laureates may share an award. Is there a role for a new type of award or event honoring collective achievement in science? Would this bring new recognition to those who excel in convergent research and provide new role models for this form of innovation?
- Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB): IBB, established in 1995, involves the participation of approximately 130 faculty associated with multiple departments on the Georgia Tech campus. Faculty members at the Petit Institute hold their academic, tenure-track appointments in one of these participating academic departments. As Robert Nerem reported, “we changed the promotion and tenure process so that the first thing that a department P&T committee can do is appoint what we call an area committee, or sometimes the first level committee, which is supposed to be the three to four faculty on campus who can best evaluate the scholarship research activities of the faculty member. And that has been an important addition to our P&T process” along with a process in which any areas of disagreement with the area committee report by the department, college, or provost are substantively addressed (Robert Nerem, Workshop on Key Challenges in the Implementation of Convergence, September 16-17, 2013, Washington, DC).
- University of Arizona, BIO5: Fernando Martinez reported that creating a parallel promotion and tenure process by simply juxtaposing a member of BIO5 with the departmental faculty was a strategy that did not work at the University of Arizona. Rather, to be most successful the promotion and tenure system for the academic structure as a whole system needed to buy in to the concept that convergence research is an essential strategy to solve problems.
Discussions during the committee’s data gathering identified the existence of a generation gap between students and younger faculty and senior academics and leaders. It has been suggested that the need to obtain tenure and funding pushes younger faculty to be disciplinary in research focus or impedes them from devoting significant efforts to forms of transdisciplinary research such as convergence until they are more established. However, many younger scientists at the workshop expressed the expectation that convergence is a normal process for how things are done. In their own research and their own laboratories, these scientists already approach problems in a highly integrated manner, have skill sets that span traditional boundaries, are comfortable working with others who have expertise in diverse areas, and want to be part of a research system that includes contributors such as clinicians and industry in order to link fundamental science with translational products and services. The committee does not have data to address whether the success of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education efforts on problem-centered learning and hands-on research experiences; changes in the ways younger scientists approach communication and collaboration; the popularity of interdisciplinary majors such as bioengineering; career stage in which thorny partnership issues in logistics, legal and intellectual property arrangements, and cost sharing have not been encountered; or some combination of these and other factors contributes to this mindset. This would be an interesting question for further analysis. Nevertheless, this attitude is a positive sign for the future of convergence and institutions should have opportunities to build on the enthusiasm of their students and younger faculty.
The relationship between space, collaboration, and productivity is complicated. As Figure 3-1 emphasizes, physical environment is one factor among many that affect the success of convergence efforts and the interacting effects of organizational culture, management, and individual characteristics cannot readily be separated or prioritized. Researcher proximity and the use of spaces that facilitate chance encounters can lead to increased consultations and collaborations and may impact outputs such as co-authored papers. For example, one study of university research centers suggested that researchers from centers with unbroken, co-located office and laboratory space reported an “innovation outcome” measure higher than researchers from centers occupying split spaces (Toker and Gray 2008).
Many of the convergence institutes that have arisen over the previ-
ous decade include dedicated physical space designed to facilitate interactions among students and faculty that cross disciplinary boundaries. When designing the physical buildings that house convergent research efforts, some institutions incorporate modular laboratory spaces that could potentially be reconfigured in the future to match changing research needs. Reportedly, this type of space flexibility was part of the design of the BioFrontiers Institute of the University of Colorado, where researchers are assigned space based on interests rather than by departmental affiliation and each space is sufficient to house the equipment, students, and staff associated with several laboratories (University of Colorado 2014). It is also a feature of the Discovery Building at the University of Wisconsin, which houses the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School, a public university) and the Morgridge Research Institute (a private, nonprofit organization) (University of Wisconsin-Madison 2014b). Adapting laboratory space to new configurations of wet and dry research may pose particular challenges for convergence across life, physical, medical, and engineering fields, since customizing a laboratory at startup may cost millions of dollars (Shatz 2013). Nevertheless, design strategies that offer future flexibility may be particularly relevant for convergence institutes since they are conducting research at the frontier of fast-developing fields. Building renovations also offer institutions valuable opportunities to consider new configurations of researchers, and may be financially more feasible for institutions than constructing entirely new spaces.
The community-building role of supporting infrastructure in convergence facilities, such as cafeterias, coffee areas, and lounges, is also frequently mentioned as providing crucial opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to interact outside of planned activities (Hollingsworth 2002; Jacks 2013; Shatz 2013; Nerem, Workshop on Key Challenges in the Implementation of Convergence; University of Colorado 2014). In the life, physical, medical, and engineering fields, core facilities that house shared instruments and research technologies are common and may provide a similar type of communal venue. Access to sophisticated core facilities may be a particularly useful incentive for convergence, and the need for support for such core spaces has been noted in prior reports.2 Several other strategies that institutions have incorporated in the physical spaces that support convergence are described below.
2 One of the recommendations from the ARISE II report is to “Expand support for shared core research facilities (especially those that span multiple PSE [physical sciences and engineering] and LSM [life sciences and medicine] approaches), including funding for stable appointments of professional staff to direct them” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2013, p.21).
4.5.1 Strategy: A Central Location in Relation
to the Rest of the Campus
Bio-X at Stanford University, created in 1998, is a university-wide institute that includes the participation of over 600 faculty members drawn from almost all of the university’s schools. The Clark Center, which opened in 2003, is the official home of Bio-X and houses its 44 core faculty members. The Center sits at the intersection of the science campuses at Stanford and is a 5-minute walk to the medicine, chemistry, biology, physics, and engineering buildings, enabling the Center to function as both a physical and intellectual hub for the Bio-X community (Shatz 2013).
4.5.2 Strategy: Arranging Laboratories and
Common Spaces to Maximize Interactions
The University of Michigan examined how the design of facilities affects collaboration through a study conducted by investigators in its School of Social Sciences. The results indicated that the amount of path overlap between investigators as they went through their day strongly correlated with the likelihood of collaboration (Figure 4-3) (Kabo et al.
2013). Other convergence programs that have used facility design with a goal of encouraging investigator overlap include the following:
- The building that houses the Institute for Bioengineering & Bioscience at Georgia Tech, completed in 1999, was designed to enhance opportunities for chance meetings including through co-location of researchers and the use of shared core instrumentation facilities. Research is organized into “neighborhood” clusters that include faculty and students from multiple disciplines, and space in the building is assigned based on research interests rather than by department (Nerem, Workshop on Key Challenges in the Implementation of Convergence; Georgia Tech 2014).
- In MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, each research floor includes a mix of biological sciences and engineering laboratories. Spaces regularly accessed by all researchers, such as bathrooms and elevators, are located within a “racetrack” corridor that loops the floor, forcing scientists to leave their laboratories during the day. The building also contains 22,000 square feet of shared core facilities spread throughout the building that comprise the Swanson Biotechnology Center (Jacks 2013).
To sustain and expand the communities of participants interested in engaging in convergence, it will be important to foster convergence not only in today’s scientific workforce but also to build a next generation of scientists who embrace the process as an avenue for discovery and innovation. Scientists will always face increasingly complex research questions and the questions of today will likely pale in complexity with those that arise in the future. A motivating goal of convergence is the view that to address many of these current and future problems at emerging interfaces between disciplines, a new type of scientist will be needed. This type of scientist must be “one who understands a broad range of disciplinary approaches, is able to ask creative questions, and is trained to answer those questions with diverse tools. This 21st-century scientist must have a skill set that allows him or her to probe and explore problems, to find and critically evaluate information, to work productively as a member of a team, and to effectively communicate research findings to others” (Colgoni and Eyles 2010, p. 10). To meet this challenge it will be imperative for the higher education system to design, implement, sustain, and evolve undergraduate and graduate educational programs that effectively promote student learning that transcends traditional disciplinary
boundaries and that promotes a culture of scientists who see convergent approaches to complex scientific questions of the future as one critical strategy.
While there is a significant body of research articulating the value of an interdisciplinary approach to science teaching and student learning, interdisciplinary science education still fits awkwardly into an academic structure that is layered into discipline-based departments often scattered across a campus’s geography. Therefore, it will take intentional efforts to achieve success given the profound changes that have taken place in the nature of the life sciences and in how complex, convergent research is performed and communicated. In order to achieve success, universities and colleges will need to reexamine current courses and teaching approaches to see how to best meet student needs. For example, new educational approaches in life sciences must address the importance of building a strong foundation in mathematics and in physical and information sciences to prepare students for research that is increasingly quantitative and data intensive in character. The implementation of new approaches will also need to be accompanied by a parallel process of assessment to verify that progress is made toward the institutional goals of student learning. A critical challenge facing education in field after field is how to provide sufficient knowledge in primary areas of expertise, as well as sufficient knowledge to interact at the frontiers of research challenges that cut across disciplines, in a reasonable time frame.
The overall mission of curriculum design at the undergraduate level is to provide all students, regardless of their intended majors, with an integrated foundation of knowledge. When addressing the challenges of designing an interdisciplinary, convergent educational program, a key first step is to define the objectives of the curriculum in a way that balances the trade-off between depth of knowledge and breadth of knowledge. Some goals for undergraduate student interdisciplinary learning, regardless of field, are
- to develop in students the intellectual capacity to deal with real, complex problems;
- to build student confidence and willingness to approach problems from multiple perspectives;
- to build student ability to communicate with scientists from other disciplines;
- to develop student ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty (reflective judgment); and
- to help students understand strengths and limitations of different disciplinary perspectives.
To accomplish these goals, learning should be goal-directed, exciting, and personal. A problem-solving approach pushes the evolution of curricula and keeps courses fresh, a benefit for both students and faculty. Problem-solving approaches can also be an effective way to help students learn how to work in teams. An important consideration when using this type of team-based, problem-solving strategy is to form student teams that are diverse in terms of educational and personal background, to provide practice opportunities to collaborate in such environments and because research has shown that teams that include a diverse mix of individuals may be more likely to succeed.
One aspect of the balancing act of curriculum development necessary to support convergence is to take into account how much physics, math, statistics, or engineering a biologist needs to learn in formal class settings versus through informal contacts and through training that occurs as a member of a research effort involving colleagues from multiple disciplines. The same is true for those starting from areas of physical sciences and engineering who need to understand biological concepts. Colleges and universities have made efforts to revise undergraduate education programs to tackle some of these challenges, particularly the issue of how better to integrate mathematics and quantitative science into biology. Two examples drawn from the workshop are below. Whatever approach is used, achieving support for new curricula across the entire institution is critical in order for it to be embraced and sustained.
- The NEXUS Physics course at the University of Maryland arose from an effort to make connections between disciplines more explicit, particularly the relationship of physical principals to understanding biological systems. The course underwent several rounds of development that highlight the difficulty of designing an integrated course. Initially, biologists and biophysicists proposed a curriculum but the physics department objected based on information from the pedagogical literature on effective physics teaching. Gathering a large group of biologists, physicists, and university administrators failed to reach consensus on course content. The most successful strategy was to use a small core group of biologists, physicists, and one university administrator, to focus on cross-cutting topics, to draw in additional faculty perspectives as needed, and to make content available using a wiki. Although a challenge to develop, having a community of faculty invested in the outcome may contribute to course sustainability (Thompson 2013).
- Yale University similarly reimagined its introductory physics course for life scientists using examples that emphasized the role
of physical and mathematical concepts in understanding biology, such as force generation by actin polymerization and genetic feedback loops. Student feedback on the new course has been positive, although institutional challenges encountered in developing it included the differing teaching loads of the physics and biology departments, the challenges of adding in a parallel laboratory course, and the issue of adoption by other faculty members and thus course sustainability (Mochrie 2013).
Liberal arts colleges are well known for the numbers of graduates who pursue STEM careers and their general model of education includes science as one dimension of a multidisciplinary curriculum that can align well with the spirit of convergence. Hope College (Michigan), for example, introduces students to interdisciplinary thinking and learning early in their college careers through the use of case studies in all introductory science courses. These cases “focus on compelling, real-world problems, incorporate activities grounded in research on learning, and use a data-rich, research-like approach that develops students’ ability to think about problems quantitatively and from different disciplinary perspectives by drawing their attention explicitly to questions of the sources and nature of scientific knowledge” (Hope College 2013). Case studies are used in both laboratory courses as well as in lectures.
Components of a new curriculum can also be designed as modules that can be added and removed with experience and that could be tested during university winter study periods, summer courses, or through seminars. This may be one strategy for testing out-of-the-box approaches to interdisciplinary training, with the expectation that some approaches will fail. A possible model for such modules is the type of specialized short courses taught at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory or Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and by universities. In addition to course modules that draw on real problems, challenges such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in synthetic biology can also serve as hooks to promote interest in convergence among students at an early stage of their training.
In graduate student training programs, boot camps, well-crafted journal clubs, seminars, and advanced-level undergraduate gap courses can be useful strategies for enabling students to round out their backgrounds in areas they need to foster convergence. However, failure to receive credit for taking undergraduate courses can create a barrier as graduate students try to complete their coursework and research requirements. To accommodate the need to fill educational gaps, curricular requirements should be flexible within categories. One example of a certificate program that provides grounding in convergent science for graduate students while
maintaining disciplinary depth is the Interdisciplinary Quantitative (IQ) Biology Program, established in 2011 at the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute. Students in the program take a boot camp on computer science, biochemistry, biology, and mathematics as well as a first-year curriculum that integrates quantitative and biological fields before choosing their Ph.D. degree program. The program has also established formal memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with participating academic departments to ensure that the dedicated IQ curriculum does not impede students’ timely degree completion (Stith 2013).3
For postdoctoral fellows and faculty, short courses and workshops can be tools to foster interdisciplinary training and fill knowledge gaps. So, too, can opportunities such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards at the Scientific Interface4 or the 2-year Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships for early-career scientists. Faculty and postdoctoral fellows can also get involved in co-teaching courses as a strategy to start to learn other disciplines. Summer cross-training opportunities and sabbaticals, as well as seminar-like courses where faculty teach each other, can be other valuable options.
To address additional educational issues related to convergence, one low-cost option is to develop online resources for convergent classes and take advantage of online courses and course modules that a variety of institutions are developing and making available free of charge. Web-based courses can be a tool for filling knowledge gaps, and more research is needed to understand how to make use of them most effectively in combination with person-to-person interactions. Informal learning activities, such as social events and journal clubs, can also be repurposed to address convergence themes.
Forming effective partnerships is a critical dimension of fostering convergence. As discussed throughout the chapter, many of the connections that underpin convergent activities bridge individual faculty members and academic departments. An additional challenge is posed when par-
3 Federal programs supporting graduate training across disciplinary boundaries included the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), which is currently ending and being replaced with an NSF Research Traineeship program. The IGERT program had a broad mandate across STEM fields and it remains unclear how this may evolve under the new program.
4 These awards “are targeted toward researchers whose doctoral training is in one of the physical, chemical or computational sciences and who intend to pursue academic research doing work that addresses biological questions” (Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2014).
ticipating investigators and departments cross different schools within an academic institution. The school of arts and science, school of engineering, and school of medicine, for example, may have different policies that govern indirect cost recovery, different expectations for faculty teaching and research loads and salary coverage, or different intellectual property (IP) experiences. Negotiating the numerous MOUs that may be required is time intensive, reaffirming the critical need for committed university leadership.
- University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex: In 2008, the University of Michigan purchased Pfizer’s former research facility, encompassing 2.2 million square feet of laboratory and administrative space in 28 connected buildings. The university, the medical school, and the university hospital provided money for the purchase and the medical school committed through its department chairs and dean that it would fund the North Campus Research Complex for 10 years with a tax on all incoming grants and income. This money serves as a source of funds for operations and capital improvements so that the campus is not dependent directly on philanthropic funding. However, the medical school had a different model of charging overhead to its faculty that includes capturing depreciation at a significant level as a means of building a fund for new facilities. In contrast, the school of engineering levied no such depreciation charge. This potential roadblock was solved when the university provost created a pool of money to cover the depreciation charge for all nonmedical school faculty. Once the North Campus was created, one of the newly-formed institutes was the Biointerfaces Institute, which explores convergence among nanotechnology, cell and tissue engineering, microfluidics and sensors, and biomaterials and drug delivery. Getting this institute established, however, involved developing an MOU for every single faculty, with every different administrator, in every different department (Canter 2013).
Convergence efforts may also involve partnerships across different universities, as a means to create teams with complementary expertise that may be lacking at any one institution and to enlarge the arena in which researchers can work cooperatively. In the University of California system, the QB3 initiative was established by the State of California to foster convergence between the biological and physical sciences at the universities of Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Berkeley. One of the strengths of the QB3 collaboration is that the capacities of the three institu-
tions are complementary: Santa Cruz and Berkeley do not have a medical school, while San Francisco does not have an engineering or computer science department. Of the $100 million initially allocated for QB3, one-third went to build a new building on each of the three campuses. However, operating funds dropped almost immediately as a result of state finances. Today, QB3 raises $5 million annually but the University of California chancellors take the majority of those funds, pointing out the potential conflict between those organizing a convergence institute and those whose interests may lie in maintaining separate domains. In a time of limited resources, the competition for funds for both disciplinary and convergent research from development, philanthropy, industry, and government is real and must be accounted for when planning an initiative that spans departments and institutions (Kelly 2013).
Because convergence extends beyond basic science discovery to translational application, bringing clinical, national laboratory, and industry partners into convergent research efforts can provide valuable connections and potentially increase the impact of research. The Ragon Institute, established in 2009 to advance immunology research and vaccine development for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, brings together the clinical expertise of Massachusetts General Hospital with Harvard and MIT. The Institute for Molecular Engineering, established in 2010 as a partnership between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, exemplifies a unique relationship in which core faculty hold dual appointments with the university and the national laboratory. The Institute also maintains partnerships with the University of Chicago’s Institute for Translational Medicine and the Booth School of Business, which serves as a resource to promote the development of critical entrepreneurship skills (University of Chicago 2014). Finally, industry can be encouraged to join convergence partnerships not only through agreements regarding intellectual property but also by providing access to faculty, ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, students.
As the committee heard repeatedly, developing a well-thought-out MOU that addresses as many contingencies as possible is an important but time-consuming aspect of the process. For the Ragon Institute, for example, structural and financial details about the governance board, institutional operations board, scientific steering committee, intellectual property issues and grant overhead, and mechanisms for inter-institutional collaborations all needed to be spelled out in the MOU (Walker 2013). Collecting and disseminating best practices and model agreements for such MOUs would be useful strategy to enable convergence leaders and practitioners to learn from the experiences of others in the community.
Funding remains a key concern for both individual researchers and institutional leaders engaged in convergence. Federal and nonprofit grant funding is a key source of support for specific convergent research projects, although institutions may catalyze projects through seed funding strategies (see Box 4-3) or may need to find ways to help keep convergent teams together during times when traditional sources of grant funding fall short. Core facilities in life, physical, engineering, and medical sciences needed for convergent research are also expensive and may require dedicated operational staff to maintain these resources and train users. Stable funding for such core facilities can be a particular challenge across the sciences.
For convergent research projects, grant submission and review processes need to fairly account for and evaluate submissions that extend beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. The creation by funding agencies of transdisciplinary peer-review mechanisms is a positive development that helps to put convergent research on the same footing as more traditional individual investigator-driven research and to facilitate the engagement of researchers in both types of projects. Policy changes at NIH and NSF that allow multiple principal investigators on a grant reflect the kind of cultural change that has been helpful. To further address potential grant issues, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is creating a
A crucial role for institutional funding can be in providing seed funds for risky, boundary-pushing convergence projects. As an example of what might be done within an institution to address this challenge, Stanford’s Bio-X includes an interdisciplinary initiatives program that provides grants for high-risk research with the potential to transform knowledge. Through an open, university wide competition, the seed grant program provides 20 to 25 awards of about $75,000 a year for 2 years that are designed to be catalytic. Toward that end, the $15 million in seed grants made over the first five rounds of the program have generated over $170 million in follow-on funding (Shatz 2013). The University of Michigan has also instituted a 2-year pilot seed funding program called MCubed. Under the program, each faculty member receives a “token” worth $20,000 but must partner with two other faculty members in order to redeem their tokens for $60,000 of funds and get going on their project idea (Canter 2013).
funding mechanism that enables staff scientists to apply for their own grants rather than as derivatives of a principal investigator’s grant. The hope is that this mechanism will improve support for core facilities and infrastructure needed to sustain convergent research activities (D. Singer 2013). At NSF, the Research at the Interface of the Biological, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences (BioMaPS) program aims to foster interactions among research groups in these fields and in engineering to improve understanding of biological systems and to apply that knowledge to areas outside of biomedicine. Other programs at NSF, such as Integrated Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE), also represent an effort to support boundary-crossing research and enable program officers rather than peer-review committees to make funding decisions (Roskoski 2013). In an effort to reduce the chances that an innovative idea would be quashed by reviewers without the right balance of expertise, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program introduced the concept of a rebuttal phase to its proposal process (Majumdar 2013). It is important to recognize that discipline-based reviewers of grant proposals draw on the depth of their specialized knowledge to make informed judgments about the future prospects of various lines of research. The review process for research proposals at the interfaces of multiple areas of knowledge, such as those arising from convergence, will require the institution of equivalent procedures to critically evaluate the questions and methods proposed.
Another valuable mechanism to support convergence efforts is provided by funding initiatives that support centers. Centers can play an important role in convergence and can act as nucleating agents for a field because without the type of infrastructure that centers build and maintain, it can be hard for a culture of convergence to occur on a sustainable basis. Centers can take different forms, whether as a specific building, a set of core facilities at an institution, or as a funding model. The NIH and NSF both fund relevant center programs, including the Centers in Systems Biology (NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences), Centers for Physical Sciences in Oncology (NIH/NCI), or Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships (NSF).
Foundations are another means of obtaining funding in combination with funds from federal agencies and home institutions (see Box 4-4), although the resources of foundations are much smaller than those of the federal government. For most philanthropic funders, the approach is to be nimble and flexible, and to identify gaps where even a small amount of
Raymond and Beverly Sackler have long sought to invest their philanthropic efforts in the support of basic and applied sciences. Their Foundation, with the guidance and counsel of numerous scientific leaders, has focused on the support of emerging new fields and in the scientists working at those frontiers.
The sequencing of the human genome, advances in regenerative engineering and genetic engineering, and broad advances in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology have created a myriad of transdisciplinary scientific investigations. The Foundation began over a decade ago to endow programs structured and organized to facilitate scientific investigations now captured under the term “convergence.”
To date 12 programs have been funded by the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation with convergence as the guiding principle. These programs, at major academic medical centers and universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel, all enlist cutting-edge leadership and programmatic components. The Foundation felt that its philanthropic support could best be leveraged by allowing flexibility and creativity, and not by imposing a preconceived structure. In effect, each program is a pilot project seeking ways to promote convergence science. An important goal is in supporting a new generation of scientists by creating an optimal research and educational environment that best promotes convergence research.
An example of a Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center is one based at the University of Connecticut under the direction of Dr. Cato T. Laurencin. The Center harnesses the expertise of clinicians, materials scientists, cell and molecular biologists, and engineers with the goal of exploring new approaches toward regenerating tissues. The convergence approach utilized by the Center has helped develop such areas as bioreactor-based musculoskeletal regeneration, and novel uses of nanotechnology to manipulate stem cell response. The Center is a cross-university facility and serves to mentor a broad variety of transdisciplinary scientists.
money can prove valuable.5 In many instances, foundations also require a financial commitment from the hosting institution.
Many institutions are looking beyond funding agencies and foundations to ensure sustainability of convergence efforts. In addition to endowments, individual donors, venture philanthropy, taxpayer initiatives such as the stem cell bond in California and the Arizona research-targeted sales
5 In 2013, seven foundations announced the formation of a coalition to provide increased funding for basic science research in order to supplement the pivotal support for such research provided by the federal government. The foundations in the coalition include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavli Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Simons Foundation, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
tax increase, new investment vehicles,6 and precompetitive partnerships with industry can be sources of long-term funding for convergent research efforts, as well as sources of ideas about mission-critical problems that can attract additional funding sources. The Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, for example, was established though a significant philanthropic donation. However, tapping into these funding opportunities requires that investigators and institute heads understand the needs of diverse funders and how to address those needs. In an era in which government funding is limited, creating the types of partnerships discussed in Section 4.7 may also help leverage federal or state grants to secure additional support from philanthropic or private-sector sources.
Many research institutions are engaged in creating an environment that promotes the convergence of life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, engineering, and beyond. Strategies such as organizing space around compelling research themes, providing seed funding to generate preliminary results in high-risk/high-return areas, reforming undergraduate and graduate education, investing in new types of shared and core facilities, recruiting people from industry with expertise in product management and product development, partnering with academic, clinical, and industry collaborators, and exploring multiple sources of funding all contribute to these efforts to nurture an effective convergence ecosystem. Despite differences in size, mission, and organizational structure, the committee identified several common characteristics of successful convergence efforts:
- Committed leaders who are able to communicate a vision, willing to work through potentially contentious and time-consuming issues such as cost sharing, intellectual property ownership, and MOU creation, willing to undertake efforts to raise sustainable funds from multiple sources, and willing to take personal and institutional risks
- Engaged participants at multiple levels who are willing to move beyond intellectual comfort zones, map the scientific landscape, and identify important new challenges to tackle
- A flexible, diverse, and supportive culture
6 For example, the concept of a “megafund” has been proposed as a potential investment mechanism to support early-stage cancer drug development (Fernandez et al. 2012).
- An entrepreneurial spirit in looking for new opportunities at the boundaries and intersections of disciplines that spans basic discovery and translational application
- Partnerships among diverse faculty, among units and schools within a university, and with collaborators such as national laboratories and industry
- Concrete systems for addressing issues such as tenure expectations (for tenure-granting academic organizations) or career tracks and reward structures outside of a tenure framework
Many of the convergence centers of which the committee is aware benefitted significantly from large donors or public taxpayer commitments. Based on many of the examples provided in the report, there may be a concern that only the largest and wealthiest institutions can afford to engage in convergence. But there is undertapped potential in expanding the concept of convergence and the awareness of its benefits to a wider range of institutions—small and large, public and private. As a first step, examples of modest options that could be considered to enable diverse institutions to start to foster convergence are provided in Table 4-2.
- Encourage social events such as coffee and pizza to foster presentations and discussions of convergent research.
- Repurpose journal clubs to address convergence themes.
- Foster informal gatherings of faculty with shared interests in convergence problems and topics, which may also contribute to discussions on advancing convergent candidates for faculty positions.
- Establish mechanisms for faculty to hold joint appointments across departments and schools.
- Develop or identify online resources for convergent classes.
- Provide opportunities for experimental courses such as through online tools, collaborative teaching, and teaching “sabbaticals” to develop new courses.
- Include examples in undergraduate and introductory science classes that show how physics, chemistry, math, engineering, and biology are put into practice when dealing with current issues.
- Implement flexible course requirements for graduate students that enable them to fill gaps in knowledge needed to undertake convergent projects and/or the ability for graduate students to name and shape the area of their degree.
- Undertake cluster hires.
- Reduce bureaucratic boundaries.
- Initiate executive-in-residence programs to bring insights from practitioners in industry.
- Institute programs to encourage collaboration at a distance for faculty from different institutions and areas of science.
At the end of the day, modest options alone may not be sufficient to fully implement and sustain a culture of convergence within an institution. Incentives are needed to get and keep people engaged across all levels. These may include funds for research, access to core facilities and to the expertise of others, procedures that reduce or streamline administrative barriers, or the carrot of economic innovation. Generating and sustaining the levels of visibility and enthusiasm needed across the community will require the engagement of key champions within multiple academic institutions, federal agencies, and other partners as well as regular opportunities for stakeholders to share their challenges and map out what is needed to achieve new solutions.