Advancing Knowledge and Solving Complex Problems Through Convergence: Conclusions and Recommendations
Convergence builds on advances in life sciences such as understanding the genetic and molecular basis of life. It does so by merging those tools and ways of thinking with contributions from physical sciences, medicine, engineering, and beyond. The promise of accelerated discovery and innovation at these research frontiers, arising from a diversity of perspectives and an environment that embraces those different perspectives, motivates stakeholders across multiple sectors to capitalize on this emerging opportunity.
As the process represented by convergence becomes further embedded in the culture of sciences, the need for institutional structures to support it will grow. Yet, fostering convergence effectively remains a challenge. Convergence institutes are one site for developing new medical therapies, efficient fuels, and improved batteries but other types of institutional settings can also be used to foster convergence. The continued establishment of new convergence centers, such as the recently announced University of Southern California Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience (Perkins 2014), indicates that practitioner scientists, academic leaders, funders, and collaborative partners share a desire to advance convergent research. This interest underscores the need to capitalize on both existing best practices and new models that will advance this goal.
The committee explored challenges to facilitating convergence, as well as strategies that have been employed by existing convergence programs to address barriers. Based on its analysis of convergence programs established at institutions across the country and the feedback and participation of scientists from graduate students to deans, the committee arrived at the following conclusions and recommendations. While convergence is one of many paths to national scientific and technological leadership, this report documents its emergence as one important mechanism for generating new knowledge, training new students, and contributing to the future of the nation’s economy.
Conclusion: Convergence is a process that leads to significant advances in fundamental knowledge, the creation of new, problem-driven solutions, and strategies for educating the next generation of STEM professionals.
Discipline-based science has produced a wealth of information across disparate fields. As a result, researchers now have unprecedented opportunities to attack challenging and complex problems. At a time when ideas, methods, models, and intellectual approaches of many fields are being synthesized into an integrated approach to problems of great importance, convergence represents a model that may become increasingly important to scientific discovery and translational application. At the same time, it coexists with many other models of multi- or transdisciplinary approaches, unidisciplinary projects, single–principal investigator (PI) projects, team-based projects, pure basic science, and pure applied science—adding value to the nation’s research enterprise. Given this plurality, convergence is one meeting point for many types of complementary initiatives.
Conclusion: A “one-size-fits-all” approach is not possible when developing an environment that fosters convergence. Differences in institutional size, mission, budgets, and policies impose unique challenges. Nonetheless, essential characteristics of environments supporting convergence can be identified.
Organizations wishing to establish or enhance a supportive environment for convergence can draw ideas, models, strategies, and lessons from examples at existing institutions in academia, industry, and government. This report has highlighted a variety of such strategies, ranging from journal clubs to innovative building design to the creation of entre-
preneurial partnerships that engage stakeholders beyond academia. As the committee’s data gathering demonstrated, many methods can foster convergence and the most appropriate approaches differ between institutions. Through comparative analysis, though, the committee was able to articulate essential characteristics of successful convergent ecosystems:
- People: The role of leadership committed to supporting convergence is key, as is the distributed leadership of students, faculty, staff, department chairs, and deans at multiple institutional levels. A characteristic of practitioners that facilitates convergence is the ability to communicate across a breadth of areas while building from strong foundations of specific expertise, as represented by the concept of “comb-shaped” individuals.
- Organization: As organizations seek ways to build from their established strengths and expand in complementary directions, strategies such as inclusive governance systems, a goal-oriented vision, effective program management, stable support for core facilities, and flexible or catalytic funding sources are fundamental. Because convergence occurs at the intersection of disciplines and the frontiers of knowledge, where risk of failure can be high, organizations must be willing to accept some failures and to phase out or redirect projects that fail.
- Culture: The culture needed to support convergence must be inclusive, value diversity of views, and support mutual respect across disciplines. It encourages opportunities to share knowledge and fosters the ability of researchers to be, or to become, conversant across disciplines in bridging knowledge cultures. Interactions across such areas may provide important lessons in building a culture and organization that embodies convergence.
- Ecosystem: Many convergence initiatives have spawned local ecosystems in which “technology moves on two feet” (Sharp 2013) as faculty and students engage in research across campus, innovation in nearby startups, and translation with clinical and industry partners.
Conclusion: If the United States wants to accelerate innovation, building sustainable infrastructure for transdisciplinary cooperation through convergence is a promising strategy. Without a systematic focus, however, even with showcase models, convergence will continue to be a reductive patchwork of isolated efforts.
Implementing and sustaining the personal, organizational, cultural, and ecosystem-level characteristics necessary to nurture convergence
within an organization is a recognized challenge. Bureaucratic overload, disciplinary constraints on faculty hiring and promotion, differences in academic accounting structures, variation in allocation of indirect cost returns, impending changes to the academic health center model that affect research support, and declines of federal research funding are all potential obstacles. Currently, each organization wanting to facilitate convergence develops its own practices to address barriers it encounters. The challenges of convergence, however, mean that institutions must learn from each other in order to expedite the ability of the U.S. research community to harness the potential of convergence.
Conclusion: Social sciences and humanities scholarship on effectiveness of multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary teams can inform theory, best practices, and organizational structures employed in convergence programs. Shared practices, especially in areas such as data collection, data access, collaboration, and knowledge dissemination, will also form a strong foundation upon which disparate fields can communicate and converge.
The evidence of literature reviews, strong models, and the cumulative wisdom of practice affirm that life scientists, physical scientists, and engineers tend to approach problem-solving differently. Challenges at frontiers of disciplines may differ as well. Therefore, case studies of collaborative research efforts, as well as the emergent field of the science of team science, are valuable resources for organizations wishing to optimize structures and practices of convergence programs. The number of convergence organizations already established and the diversity of ages of such programs from the 1990s forward provide a particularly relevant set of case studies that should be investigated more systematically for insights on how to overcome barriers to convergence, what attributes play the most significant roles in nurturing and sustaining convergence, and what types of quantitative and qualitative approaches provide appropriate criteria to evaluate success. Most of the information the committee was able to gather, while useful, was still essentially anecdotal in nature. Moreover, many strategies organizations have used to foster convergence echo the types of challenges and strategies reported for facilitating interdisciplinary and/or team-based research more generally. It would be valuable to examine in more detail the unique barriers to convergence as well as the strategies that have been found to address those challenges successfully. This type of analysis will provide a useful opportunity to further engage the social science research community in helping to answer such questions. While published literature has explored individual case studies and academic-industry center programs such as the National Science
Foundation’s (NSF’s) Engineering Research Centers, it has not yet focused closely on convergence programs as a group. The results of published studies are challenging to parse for concrete, practical guidance on how to structure a convergence program and establish the necessary policies and agreements. An enhanced and expanded partnership among convergence practitioners, institutional leaders, and the social sciences research community could provide a valuable service in helping to fill this gap.
Conclusion: Convergence results from merging insights emanating from the integration of diverse perspectives. Further exploration of opportunities will broaden participation in convergence efforts in order to take full advantage of the creativity enabled by diversity of approaches.
The types of solutions achieved through convergence often arise from teams composed of talented individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise. Although heterogeneity can lead to conflict as a result of differences in approaches to research problems, diversity also contributes to the power to think beyond usual paradigms and produce creative solutions. Achieving the multiplicative power needed to facilitate convergence involves diversity not only of subject-matter expertise but also of the individual and institutional partners engaged. Most current convergence efforts, particularly established institutes, are associated with a limited number of large, research-intensive universities. To fully take advantage of convergence opportunities, it will be important to continue increasing the range of participants and to harness their insights by creating environments and infrastructures in which multiple talents can be effectively combined.
Conclusion: Institutional seed funding, catalytic foundation and private funding, and federal agency funding are all constructive mechanisms to support convergence. Federal agencies remain the largest source of academic research and development funding and thus have a special role in facilitating convergence.
Investigators and institutions use multiple mechanisms to support convergence efforts. All of them are relevant strategies that should continue to be explored, along with alternative strategies such as state bonds or new types of financial instruments such as investment funds. Because federal agencies continue to provide approximately 60 percent of academic research and development funding for science, they are central partners in facilitating convergence. Science agencies have already established programs that recognize and support research at interfaces of multiple
disciplines, although the committee was able to identify fewer training grant programs that explicitly address training that spans such boundaries. The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, supports center initiatives such as Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer, Centers for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, and Physical Sciences in Oncology. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, by the nature of its mandate, brings together expertise from life, physical, and engineering sciences to develop new tools and technologies for clinical innovation. A convergence approach is also embedded in new federal efforts such as Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), in which NIH, NSF, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are partners. Although smaller in scope than federal funding, institutional and foundation funds also play an important role in catalyzing development of convergence projects. Early community discussions to elucidate scientific challenges that ultimately led to the formation of BRAIN were hosted by the Kavli Foundation, for example. These diverse mechanisms for supporting convergence should be maintained and expanded, particularly where support can be leveraged across multiple partners. The NIH Common Fund, in particular, is a promising opportunity for supporting efforts that require convergence approaches. It tackles issues that require strategic planning, coordination, and collaboration across NIH institutes. Similar opportunities and new funding structures at other agencies and across federal science agencies could be explored, such as programs to provide joint funding between agencies.
Conclusion: The interconnected network of partners, from academic leaders and practitioners to industry researchers, clinicians, and funders, together form an ecosystem for convergence. For convergence to enable innovation and stimulate future economic development and societal problem solving, research advances ultimately need to be translated into new products and services through technology transfer activities such as licensing or the formation of startup companies.
Problem solving is a key driver for many convergent activities. They have been a fount of new thinking and approaches of the type that have played a significant role in creating disruptive innovations that lead to new job creation. In order to realize a convergence ecosystem, particular attention must be paid to the translational effectiveness of universities. Within U.S. universities, a diverse set of approaches and policies foster commercialization, captured by metrics such as the ratio of federal grants received to number of patents issued or number of companies started. Moreover, effectiveness of universities to license technologies, whether to
previously-existing companies or new startup companies, is varied and ranges from effective to ineffective. The federal government makes significant investments in research universities with an implicit expectation that there is return on that public investment. Convergence is a model for how integrated transdisciplinary research can achieve benefits both for the scientific enterprise and for society as advances are translated. For that reason, it is important to evaluate policies and procedures universities use to accomplish the goal of technology translation and how to optimize them.
A series of recommendations follows from these conclusions if the United States wishes to effectively harness the momentum generated by convergence and enable stakeholders to widely foster its further development.
- Experts, funding agencies, foundations, and other partners should identify key problems whose solution requires convergence approaches in order to catalyze new research directions and guide research priorities.
- Research institutions, funding agencies, foundations, and other partners should address barriers to effective convergence as they arise, including expanding mechanisms for funding convergence efforts and supporting collaborative proposal review across funding partners. Institutional programs such as seed funding to catalyze collaborations should be implemented or expanded.
- Institutions should review their administrative structures, faculty recruitment and promotion practices, cost recovery models, and research support policies to identify and reduce roadblocks to the formation of inter- and intrainstitutional partnerships that facilitate convergence.
- Academic institutions should develop hiring and promotion policies that include explicit guidelines to recognize the importance of both convergent and disciplinary scholarship, and include criteria to fairly evaluate them.
- Those interested in fostering convergence should identify evidence-based practices that have facilitated convergence by drawing on the expertise of economic, social, and behavioral sciences, as well as program management and strategic planning. Understanding the unique barriers and strategies to practicing convergence would improve practical guidance
on how institutions can structure and sustain a convergence program.
- Leaders and practitioners who have fostered a convergence culture in their organizations and laboratories should develop partnerships, synergies, and collaborations with their colleagues—especially in small universities and institutions that serve traditionally underrepresented groups—to help institutions establish and nurture convergence efforts while furthering the interests of their own.
- Best practices on the effective transfer of technologies from research organizations into the private sector should be collected, established, and disseminated. For convergent approaches to enable innovation and stimulate future economic development, research advances need to be translated into new products and services.
In order to most effectively achieve these goals, the committee concluded that greater coordination will be required to move beyond the patchwork of current efforts. Despite momentum to create and sustain the types of boundary-crossing approaches and partnerships embodied by convergence, fostering convergence successfully remains a challenge. As a result, the committee makes a final recommendation:
- National coordination on convergence is needed to support the infrastructure to solve emerging problems that transcend traditional boundaries. Stakeholders across the ecosystem of convergence—including agencies, foundations, academic and industry leaders, clinicians, and scientific practitioners—should collaborate to build awareness of the role of convergence in advancing science and technology and stimulating innovation for the benefit of society.
The opportunity for convergence approaches to address challenges of this era—including treating diseases in a precision medicine manner, expanding healthcare access at reduced cost, developing sustainable energy sources, and achieving food and water security—make this the right time for a systematic effort to raise awareness of convergence and its role in sciences and technologies of the future, and to overcome remaining challenges to creating environments that foster it. Over the past several decades, support for cross-disciplinary research has produced a cadre of researchers experienced in convergence approaches. Their readiness,
combined with increasingly rapid development of biological understanding and technological progress, presents a new scale of opportunity for convergence. While one-by-one investigator collaborations across disciplines have been productive, we are now witnessing incremental benefits of larger-scale convergence in organizations in measures of research productivity and company establishment.
Institutions, funding agencies, and foundations have all made positive strides in establishing centers of convergence and identifying practices that nurture convergence ecosystems. Nevertheless, many practical challenges identified by convergence leaders and practitioners have remained consistent since release of the 2004 report Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (NAS et al. 2004). Convergence efforts could and should draw in greater numbers of participants from diverse institutions beyond an “elite” tier of large, research-intensive university systems. Convergence is not only transdisciplinary; it is also trans-sector in nature and, like all of science and engineering, international in scope. Although the focus of this committee’s data-gathering efforts and the present report is on challenges and strategies for stimulating convergence in U.S. institutions, all areas of science that contribute to convergence are rapidly advancing in a cross-global context. Convergence is a priority for countries participating in EU Research Programmes and in the OECD, thus providing an opportunity for future partnerships. Insight may be gained from learning about practices of convergence centers established elsewhere in the world.
Convergence efforts cross boundaries of life, health, physical, and engineering sciences, and thus also cross boundaries among funding agencies that support biomedical research, such as NIH, and those traditionally supporting research in physical sciences such as the Department of Energy (DOE), NSF, and the Department of Defense (DOD). The power of cross-agency efforts at the interface between life and physical sciences is exemplified by the success of the Human Genome Initiative, which was supported collaboratively by NIH and DOE. Convergent innovation at the edges of disciplines will also be required to help realize the goals of the National Bioeconomy Blueprint. The number of agencies interested in convergence topics represents a powerful base for cross-agency programs.
A systematic focus on convergence would draw attention to available resources in areas such as the science of team science, assessment and evaluation of collaborative research, factors affecting interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research success, and other areas that bear on the effective implementation of practices that facilitate convergence. Greater coordination on convergence would enable practitioners, funders, and users to learn more about these research fields, which in many cases are drawn from social, economic, and behavioral sciences. The further involvement of faculty from these fields in convergence efforts represents
an undertapped resource to aid institutions and investigators as they seek to create environments in their organizations and laboratories that will nurture and sustain convergence. There is clearly community desire for ongoing opportunities to discuss convergence, as exemplified by the dynamic interactions that took place at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)/University of Colorado workshop “Science on FIRE” (Derrick et al. 2012) and the 2013 National Academy of Sciences workshop. Opportunities to continue and deepen these discussions would be beneficial.
Stakeholder discussions on potential convergence challenges would help explore key scientific needs and conceptualize cross-institutional and cross-agency strategies to address them. As noted during the convergence workshop, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is an interested consumer of results of processes that can identify challenges and opportunities at the intersection of multiple disciplines; targeted investments needed in research, education, and infrastructure to take advantage of these opportunities; and potential partnerships among agencies, philanthropists, research universities, companies, and other stakeholders that will co-invest in these opportunities (Kalil 2013). Researchers at the interface of neuroscience and nanoscience undertook this type of community planning process when making the case that an investment in new tools was needed to measure real-time activity of neural circuits. This coordinated effort ultimately led to the BRAIN initiative supported by NIH, NSF, and DARPA. The Computing Community Consortium, supported by NSF, similarly issues white papers, research roadmaps, and workshop reports to inform federal research initiatives in areas such as robotics, “big data,” and cyberphysical systems. Similar types of efforts to explore the frontiers of convergence would be valuable. At a symposium at the 2014 AAAS annual meeting, participants suggested several health-related topics that require convergence, including developing predictive models for wellness that incorporate new strategies to gather an expanded set of vital signs and understanding and manipulating the microbiome.
As a result, national stakeholder coordination on convergence would support the following five goals:
- Encourage and enable funding agencies and foundations that support research in life, physical, mathematical, computational, medical, and engineering sciences and beyond to support research that spans their established domains and to serve as a network of resources for each other.
- Support the vibrant community of institutional leaders and researchers, both younger and senior, who are interested in fos-
tering convergence and provide an ongoing forum for dialogue among this community on common challenges they encounter and proven strategies used to address them; provide mechanisms to share lessons learned and translate those practices across diverse institutional settings.
- Stimulate further engagement of core partners such as national laboratories, clinicians, industry, and others in the ecosystem of convergence, from discovery to applications; provide opportunities to encourage strategies to simplify funding and simplify administrative structures that govern research between institutions and organizations.
- Draw on experiences of convergence institutes and programs to more systematically understand convergence in institutions and partnering organizations, and to showcase evidence-based practices demonstrated to impact design and conduct of convergent research.
- Catalyze opportunities for the expanding convergence community to discuss frontiers of science and identify emerging topics at interfaces of multiple disciplines where the process of convergence is necessary to achieve new knowledge.
As the examples in the report illustrate, a strong cohort of convergence centers, practitioners, and funders exists as a starting point. This critical mass of activity provides a prime opportunity to sustain and expand convergence discussions. Stakeholders interested in the promise of convergence can help identify scientific research frontiers and help establish priorities. Engagement of communities such as economic, social, and behavioral sciences and humanities can be more effectively incorporated to better understand the process of convergence and to improve translation and adoption of scientific advances that result from convergent research efforts. Diversity of expertise and perspectives is an enabler of innovation and the approach provided by convergence provides one platform to harness such diversity for the benefit of society.
Various models could be considered for how to undertake the national coordination needed to advance convergence. Associations and societies that bring together key stakeholders can undertake convening efforts to set goals. Foundations could serve catalytic roles for the community. Cross-agency working groups could coordinate policy development. All of these actors can play vision-setting roles in the establishment of new
strategies to facilitate convergence. At the most structured end is the creation of a formal initiative. Examples of successful initiatives addressing large-scale research problems are well-known, including the Human Genome Project, the Materials Genome Initiative1, and the recent formation of the BRAIN Initiative. How to establish an initiative around processes and infrastructure, which is what focused coordination on convergence would require, is a more challenging question.
Convergence brings together knowledge and tools from life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, engineering, and beyond in a network of partnerships to undertake innovative research and address compelling technical and societal challenges. It thus has a scope that is diverse, multistakeholder, and multisectorial. One example of an emerging field that is also broad in scope and that engages the contributions of multiple partners is nanoscience. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) focuses on fostering nanoscience and nanotechnology motivated by the realization that understanding material properties at the nanoscale could have wide-ranging applications across sectors including health, energy, and manufacturing. The NNI provides a framework that brings attention to nanoscience and enables development of shared goals and strategies to advance it. The NNI has catalyzed creation of research and education centers at laboratories and universities across the country, as well as support for public–private partnerships and commercialization activities around nanotechnology. Through the NNI, participating agencies advance fundamental research, stimulate infrastructure, foster workforce education and training, and support grand challenge areas that address compelling priority needs. The NNI currently includes 20 participating agencies with research, regulatory, and commercial missions. It also includes coordinating mechanisms to more effectively leverage the strengths of its diverse participants. The subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology through the National Science and Technology Council at OSTP undertakes strategic planning for this initiative while the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office provides subcommittee support through the organization of meetings, workshops, and the NNI website (www.nano.gov).
To be successful, coordination on convergence will also need to provide a multiagency and multistakeholder framework of shared goals, leverage interests and strengths of research and development agencies such as NIH, NSF, DOE, and DOD and regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration
1 The Materials Genome Initiative, established in 2011, supports research and translation in material science including the development of advanced materials with applications in areas such as energy, transportation, and security (http://www.whitehouse.gov/mgi).
(FDA), foster networks of convergence centers and practitioners in academic, industrial, and clinical settings, and engage the imagination of future convergence scientists. Convergence offers opportunities to build on the success of initiatives such as NNI and others, but the coordination needed by the community to effectively foster convergence focuses even more heavily on processes, mechanisms, partnerships, and infrastructure than on specific technical challenges. One of the goals of national convergence coordination is to better enable stakeholders to identify fruitful research frontiers, which might themselves form the basis for future programs similar to BRAIN.
Convergence among life and health sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and beyond offers the promise of new modes of knowledge creation and production that will stimulate innovation, economic development, and societal problem solving. Many stakeholders in the ecosystem needed for convergence to occur—students and faculty members, academic leaders, practitioners in industry and clinical settings, and representatives of funding agencies, foundations, and the business development community—are already engaged in convergent research and in efforts to nurture it in organizational settings. But challenges remain, including the need to broaden the range of those engaged in convergence efforts. The time is now to bring attention to convergence and to channel that momentum into the practical policies and structures that will enable it to realize its full potential to help transform our world in the 21st century.
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