A workshop held October 23–24, 2018, at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC, gathered approximately 60 participants from academic and nonprofit research organizations, federal agencies, private foundations, and industry to discuss efforts to create and foster cultures that support convergence-based approaches to research.1 The workshop gathered a peer group interested and active in fostering convergence across disciplinary and institutional silos. A mix of plenary presentations, panels, breakout groups, and discussion sessions provided opportunities for community leaders in this area to share insights and lessons learned. Workshop goals included
- fostering shared understanding among academic, industry, government, and foundation leaders of the culture of convergence;
- mapping incentives and disincentives in research and funding policies and analyzing misalignments that impede the culture of convergence;
- identifying strategies and practices that support effective cultures of convergence; and
- forming and strengthening networks of leaders who propel convergence.
Multiple organizations have sought to create and foster cultures that support convergence, with actions taken by principal investigators (PIs), department chairs, deans, center directors, and university and industry leaders, as well as by program managers at funding institutions.2 A number of additional research and funding bodies are interested in whether and how they can most effectively support and facilitate convergent research. However, existing career and institutional incentives do not always align with the goals of convergence and these misalignments inhibit the ability to establish and support cultures in which convergence thrives. By convening participants to discuss their experiences, successes, and challenges, the workshop aimed to generate fresh momentum and effective actions that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) and partner stakeholders might further explore to foster such convergence cultures.
Brief background information may be helpful in understanding the intent of the workshop and framing the discussions that took place. This section provides selected recent use of the term “convergence,” with a focus on how the National Academies have addressed the topic as well as how research communities have been using the concept. The section also aims to help clarify the term convergence (as used during the workshop) in relation to several similar concepts and research approaches.
Convergence, Transdisciplinarity, and Team Science
The workshop focused on convergence, emphasizing an integration of knowledge and ways of thinking to tackle complex challenges and achieve new and innovative solutions that could not otherwise be obtained. As used in a number of reports, however, significant overlap exists between the terms convergence, transdisciplinary research, and team science. The current workshop did not parse these definitions in detail. These fields are complementary to each other, but a need to build clarity and common understanding of what each term represents and the nuances that distinguish them seems likely to underpin future work.
2 The workshop did not attempt to precisely define what was meant by a “culture” for convergence, but the discussion of scientific and organizational cultures generally encompassed aspects such as individual and collective characteristics, attitudes, norms, and ways of interacting that could support or impede convergent research. The field of science and technology studies may be informative for future discussions of this issue. See, for example, the discussion of scientific culture in Pickering (1992), which explores the system of influences in which scientists undertake research.
The idea of transdisciplinary research integration, along with similar terms such as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, has been defined through a base of prior literature.3 A number of recent reports use the terms convergence and transdisciplinary research largely interchangeably, such as when discussing aspects of the U.S. research ecosystem or the revitalization of graduate education (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2013; NASEM 2018a,b). The focus on synthesizing knowledge that characterizes transdisciplinary integration is clearly relevant to the goals of convergence. As a result, the identification and implementation of policies and practices that evaluate and sustain transdisciplinary research also contribute to the discussion of how to establish cultures that support convergence.
Team science, meanwhile, has been defined as “research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion” (NRC 2015, p. 2). Its focus on group collaborative research could thus apply to a uni-disciplinary research project as well as to one that includes multiple disciplines. In recent years, a body of scholarship has developed on understanding how teams function together (the science of team science), and this field provides a valuable complementary perspective to inform convergence. As a practical matter, undertaking research in a collaborative team is now one key strategy for tackling complex problems across boundaries. Teams can be quite small or very large, but a team-based approach is typical of many efforts exemplified by convergence. Insights from the social and behavioral sciences on forming and sustaining effective teams can thus contribute to the set of strategies that advance convergence, whether the research is undertaken within a single laboratory where members bring different skills and expertise, or whether it occurs as part of a large partnership across multiple institutions. An individual investigator can also embody the idea of convergence by having substantial expertise in more than one area as well as the ability to successfully bridge across them. This characteristic has been referred to as moving beyond t-shaped skills to being a pi-shaped or comb-shaped person (Dawson 2013).
Selected Recent Convergence Efforts
The idea that insights are enabled as technologies or disciplines come together in new ways has been reflected in numerous reports on which
3 These terms have generally been characterized on a continuum of increasing levels of disciplinary integration (see, for example, Rosenfield 1992, Hall et al. 2008, Klein 2010, and others). One way these concepts have been represented, including during this workshop, is through a fruit metaphor. In this representation, interdisciplinary research is a fruit salad combining contributions from individual, distinct disciplines while transdisciplinary research is a blended smoothie.
this workshop builds. An incomplete sampling of the treatment of convergence in prior publications includes “converging technologies for improving human performance” (Roco and Bainbridge 2003), “discipline convergence in nanobiology” (Zanuy et al. 2006), and “the convergence of chemistry and biology” to create new disarmament challenges (Tucker 2010). In remarks made by President Obama to the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, the President spoke in particular of “the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s under way today” (White House 2009). The term similarly appears in A New Biology for the 21st Century (NRC 2009, p. 46), showcasing brain-machine interfaces as “an example of the convergence of different areas of science and technology, and the importance of encouraging the emergence of the New Biology as an integrated science.” As a subsequent article stated about the promise of convergence to advance biomedical science, “there is an increasing need to merge expertise that goes beyond the interdisciplinary intersection of fields to the emergence of new disciplines” (Sharp and Langer 2011). This concept was extended by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the white paper The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering (Sharp et al. 2011), and MIT has continued to explore the promise of convergence, particularly for the value it brings to biomedicine (MIT 2016). The term is also now incorporated into the renamed Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies (BNCT).4
Reflecting the significant attention being paid to the idea of convergence and, more generally, in response to interest among researchers and institutions in how to foster new knowledge that combines seemingly disparate disciplinary perspectives, the National Academies undertook Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond (NRC 2014a). That report framed convergence as an approach to capitalize on capabilities at the intersection of expertise to tackle questions and problems that cannot be effectively approached otherwise, and it included examples of strategies that institutions and funders were using to support convergence. The 2014 report described convergence as
an approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from life and health sciences, physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, engineering disciplines, and beyond to form a comprehensive synthetic frame-
work for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields. By merging these diverse areas of expertise in a network of partnerships, convergence stimulates innovation from basic science discovery to translational application. (NRC 2014a, p. 1)
The report supported a definition of convergence beyond science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and highlighted the contributions of fields such as the social, economic, and behavioral sciences. A summary of the report’s recommended actions and desired outcomes is shown in Table 1-1. This material provided background to this workshop.
Multiple efforts have served to further expand discussions on convergence. The National Academies’ Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable held a workshop on the topic (GUIRR 2014), which increased the engagement with corporate partners and included an array of geographically diverse universities. A STEM-focused prize, now in its fifth year, was also established by the National Academies to recognize scientific leaders whose achievements were possible only through “integration of two or more of the following disciplines: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biomedicine, biology, astronomy, earth sciences, engineering, and computational science.”5 Subsequent reports from the National Academies continue to reference the term when discussing activities that support the creation of new realms of knowledge. For example, a recent report encouraged engineering research centers to draw on convergent engineering, “distinguished by resolutely using team-research and value-creation best practices to rapidly and efficiently integrate the unique contributions of individual members and develop valuable and innovative solutions for society” (NASEM 2017, p. 26). The concept has also been incorporated as a pillar into the National Academy of Medicine’s current strategic plan (NAM 2017).
Beyond the National Academies, the National Science Foundation (NSF) highlighted convergence as one of its 10 big ideas for the agency (“Growing Convergent Research at NSF”) and is creating a solicitation process to encourage convergence in a subset of its research and center awards.6 Universities and university associations have engaged with the concept individually and collectively—for example, the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities emphasized the value of trans-
5 See “New NAS Prize for Convergence Research” (press release), available at http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=03052015; accessed February 12, 2019, and prize website at http://www.nasonline.org/programs/awards/sackler-prize-convergence.html; accessed February 12, 2019.
|National vision-setting body||
|Funder of science and technology innovation||
|Industry, medical, or regulatory stakeholder||
disciplinary research and convergence in its Challenge of Change initiative to address global food needs (APLU 2017). Beyond the United States, and among the many examples mentioned during this workshop, the mission of the Japanese World Premier International Research Center Initiative, includes creating breakthroughs through disciplinary “fusion” (WPI 2018), while Seoul National University and Gyeonggi Provincial Government of South Korea established the Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology.7
The previous examples reflect only a partial summary of how the concept of convergence has evolved among research communities, universities, and the National Academies over the past decade. The term “convergence” captures a common idea that significant opportunities are possible when cultures are established that foster the ability to integrate areas of knowledge in creative ways. The momentum toward convergence seems set to continue and has been supported by numerous organizations. On the other hand, it remains useful to wrestle with how to effectively enable convergence within organizational structures. One main challenge is managing the requirements it can impose in creating hybrid systems of people, buildings, and instruments while not sacrificing other institutional and systemic priorities that should be sustained. The discussions at the 2018 workshop provided an opportunity to highlight progress that has been made as investigators and institutions increasingly move from questions about the nature and role of convergence in their research portfolios to taking action and generating evidence for what supports a productive convergence culture.
The Balance Between Applied and Curiosity-Driven Research
An additional question that can arise during discussions is whether convergence requires a focus on practical application or is understood to
encompass basic science. The discussions during the workshop emphasized the importance of both goal-oriented and investigator-driven or curiosity-driven research. In the 1939 essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” referenced by one participant, Abraham Flexner articulated the value of supporting research conducted for reasons separate from consideration of practical application, because fundamental advances often led to critical breakthroughs that would not have been foreseen (Flexner 1939). Other participants supported this point, noting that it is not possible to predict which pieces of curiosity-driven research will change the world and there is a need to ensure that agencies and foundations continue to invest in both basic science and application-focused research as part of their overall portfolio mix. Meanwhile, the recent NSF convergence solicitation invites projects that are “driven by a specific and compelling problem … whether it arises from deep scientific questions or pressing societal needs.”8
A related concept raised during the workshop stems from the Stokes classification of research along two different dimensions: fundamental versus applied and curiosity-driven versus use-inspired (Stokes 1997). While the two extremes are pure basic research and pure applied research, the quadrant in which the answer to both questions is yes has been called “use-inspired basic research” or Pasteur’s quadrant—science that provides fundamental knowledge but that also has broader impacts. As noted by one of the workshop participants, projects that embody convergence seem likely to fit particularly naturally into this category.
The workshop focused on convergence as one promising and flexible approach to organizing research, without attempting to limit where it fits in a continuum of basic to applied activities that ultimately lead to innovation. Further discussion and greater clarity around this question may be useful in future work, as an understanding of this debate may affect which research and stakeholder communities see convergence as being directly relevant to their knowledge advancement needs.
This introduction explains the aims and structure of the workshop, along with brief background information intended to provide context for the meeting. Chapter 2 summarizes the sessions that took place over the course of the 1.5-day workshop. The results of these workshop discussions are presented thematically in Chapter 3, along with a number of ideas for potential next steps and future actions described by participants.
8 See “Dear Colleague Letter: Growing Convergence Research,” available at https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2018/nsf18058/nsf18058.jsp; accessed February 12, 2019.
This proceedings was prepared by workshop rapporteurs as a summary of what occurred at the workshop. The views contained in the proceedings are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies.
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