According to academics from some of the nation’s top universities, the adoption of Convergence in Healthcare is the top method through which American researchers will continue to lead the way in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. “Convergence: The Future of Health,” a report sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), suggests the cooperative and widespread participation of professionals from multiple sectors of the science and mathematics communities stands as the best possible way for the medical research community to address a rising need for more and better technologies, medicines and discoveries to satisfy the growing demand for affordable, comprehensive healthcare services around the globe.
While the government, education and healthcare industries must undergo a number of changes to establish Convergence in Healthcare as a working reality, experts believe the support of certain key scientific agencies in the United States is one of the most effective initial steps forward. Listed below are three agencies with the right resources at their disposal to have the greatest potential to significantly accelerate the growth of Convergence in Healthcare.
National Institutes of Health
An organization within the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the country’s government-sponsored medical research organization. It is divided in to 27 separate centers and institutes focused on different areas of healthcare. However, this poses a problem for the progression of the Convergence in Healthcare movement. To encourage convergence, there must be a greater integration of professionals from different areas of science and medicine, which will be difficult to do within the NIH’s current structure.
The solution suggested in “Convergence: The Future of Health” is to establish specific programs that actively promote collaboration between the NIH’s numerous institutes and centers through several avenues. The first is to employ the use of the NIH’s Common Fund, a program built into the NIH budget to financially support programs that are transformative, catalytic, synergistic, cross-cutting and unique. The funding could be used to establish a “Convergence Working Group” at the NIH to create an overarching convergence strategy for the agency as a whole. The group would lead convergence efforts between and give direct support to all 27 institutes and centers of the NIH, which individually would appoint internal leaders to create convergence research agendas, establish facilities for various convergent research frontiers and ultimately train staff from each area of research to think and work convergently.
National Science Foundation
As outlined on its official website, one purpose of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to “advance the national health,” though this is not the organization’s sole or even primary focus. The NSF works to advance the whole of scientific research, so it yields to the NIH for in-depth medical research needed to keep up with the health needs of today’s burgeoning population. However, as a science-focused organization, it has a valuable role in supporting research outside of the narrow scope of the medical sector, in areas such as physical science, engineering, computing, biology and mathematics, which are at the heart of the Convergence in Healthcare approach.
“Convergence: The Future of Health” posits that the NSF would best further the convergence revolution by focusing on updating its educational culture to encourage greater, more frequent collaboration between its scientists from all disciplines and to encourage the development of new teaching and research methods that pair professionals from significantly different backgrounds. Additionally, the report suggests the NSF’s convergence efforts could benefit from a revision of the organization’s current peer-review process, as well as an expansion of its engineering research centers. The report asks the NSF to create its own version of the NIH’s Common Fund to firmly demonstrate its approval of convergence-based research.
It should be noted that the NSF has been consistent in its support of convergent research in years past, and in March 2018, an open letter to all NSF colleagues encouraged members to submit convergence research initiatives for funding and restated its commit to the movement as one of the “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investment.”
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
With a central focus on the development of tools and technologies to enhance the security of the United States and its people, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) established its Biological Technologies Office in 2014 to conduct health research to support members of the defense community. Its efforts have benefited the convergence revolution due to the agency’s interest in conducting pioneering research in areas such as synthetic biology, brain function and biological threats, among many others.
Though committed to its specific agenda, DARPA collaborated with other medical and science institutions in endeavors advantageous to the convergence revolution, including projects such as a tissue chip for drug screening in conjunction with the NIH or work with the BRAIN Initiative on the Neural Engineering System Design program. DARPA hopes to be an ongoing source of groundbreaking convergence research for other health sector agencies to build on and collaborate with to help accelerate the movement.