The Rise of 'Convergence' Science

January 5, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Advances in medicine and biotechnology -- from the sequencing of the human genome to the development of small chips to detect cancer in the bloodstream -- were driven largely by scientists coming together from diverse disciplines to work on common problems. But a blue ribbon panel said here Tuesday that these advances also signify something larger: the creation of a new model -- dubbed "convergence" -- in which engineering and physical sciences, among other disciplines, join forces with the life sciences.

While convergence sounds like just another interdisciplinary mash-up, it may prove to challenge traditional scientific categories, according to several panelists at a forum convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Convergence is more than simply bringing together experts in two or more disciplines to swap insights; it is an exchange of mindsets. "Fundamentally different approaches from physical science and engineering are imported into biological research, while life science's understanding of complex evolutionary systems is reciprocally influencing physical science and engineering," say the authors of an MIT white paper, "The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering," released Tuesday. "Convergence is the result of true intellectual cross-pollination."

As attractive as that sounds, convergence may spell the end of the existing organization of scientific fields, said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the AAAS. "It, in fact, challenges the traditional disciplinary structure we are so comfortable with," said Leshner, adding that convergence will "threaten the hell" out of this structure, and its attendant funding mechanisms and departmental divisions. He said that convergence marks "the demise of disciplinary science."

And yet, shifts, both large and small, already have taken place. Biotechnology programs, which combine traditional biology and engineering among other applied disciplines, are common on campuses throughout the country. Several universities have melded departments and disciplines into new centers or institutes, as reflected by the experience of many participants in Tuesday's session. MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, whose faculty members were well-represented at the forum, puts molecular geneticists, cell biologists, and engineers under one roof to collaborate.

The University of California at Berkeley launched "Big Ideas@Berkeley," a competition that provides incentives to interdisciplinary teams of students to come up with better ways to purify water, tackle illiteracy, or diagnose malaria, for example. Thomas Kalil, who launched the contest and is now deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, also took part in the panel. And the theoretical groundwork leading up to Tuesday's session has been gradually laid over several decades. The MIT white paper grew out of the National Academies of Science's 2009 report, "A New Biology for the 21st Century," in which the authors predicted the need for those working in biology -- in tandem with those in physical, computational, and earth sciences as well as mathematics and engineering -- to tackle four pressing issues: sustainable food production, the ecosystem, biofuels production, and human health.

As such studies and efforts suggest, convergence is a repository for lofty expectations. Tuesday's session spotlighted the model's potential to make health care more effective and individualized while trimming the costs of providing care. But, as Leshner's remarks indicate, convergence also carries consequences for funding, the structure of university science departments, and how the next generation of scientific researchers and engineers will be trained. Research conducted according to the convergence model requires a team effort. Some panelists wondered how credit for work can get fairly apportioned, especially when hiring and tenure decisions hinge on it. And, while many researchers may welcome organizational innovation -- in theory -- they also tend to bristle when it threatens their turf, said Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Among funders, such a shift would require a new framework, not merely fine-tuning the existing system, said Guttmacher. One short-term solution proposed by some panelists is for federal agencies that fund science to dedicate a small percentage of their awards budgets to a joint pot of money reserved for convergence projects. "All of us need to have some courage in doing this," he said. Besides, the model already exists, as many pointed out. The human genome project was the product of funding and coordination from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

Some questions from the packed audience of academics, researchers, Capitol Hill and White House staffers, and MIT alumni centered on whether universities should start training "convergent scientists" who are versed in hybrid fields. But Keith Yamamoto, professor and executive vice dean of the University of California at San Francisco's School of Medicine, cautioned against it. Highly specialized knowledge will only grow in importance, he said. What is needed more, he argued, was a wider acceptance -- as reflected in how scientists are trained and what gets published -- of the importance of teamwork. Effective teamwork among specialists of disparate disciplines who look to new areas of knowledge would spur progress. "We need to excite people about what's going on in the boundaries," said Yamamoto.

Kalil described the ideal scientist working in the convergence model as being shaped like a letter T. The top part of the T symbolizes breadth of interests and knowledge, while the stem represents depth of expertise in one area.

"I don't think it's about thinking one person can do everything," said Guttmacher. "It's about training people to be exposed to new ways of thinking."

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