In 1950, the U.S. government established the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense.”
Since then, the NSF has, by its own admission, been at the forefront of support for “high risk, high reward” research. The agency has supported the development of some of the most novel and innovative technologies of the modern age, including nanotechnology.
At the heart of the NSF’s work is the support of basic research in all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which academics believe is a crucial part of the success of the Convergence in Healthcare movement.
The Primary Value of the NSF in the Convergence in Healthcare Movement
In the 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology whitepaper “Convergence: The Future of Health,” American academics present several reasons why the NSF is a crucial part of the effort to help Convergence in Healthcare gain momentum in the wider medical community. The most impactful reason is the NSF’s work promoting STEM education at all academic levels in the U.S.
High-quality, widely accessible STEM education from kindergarten through the university level is necessary for the success of Convergence in Healthcare. The NSF is a major funder of STEM teacher development programs as well as comprehensive STEM education for elementary, middle and high school students.
At the post-secondary level of American higher education institutions, the NSF is responsible for almost a quarter of all federally funded basic research. The group funds academic research that falls within 10 core areas. These range from computer and information systems sciences to social, behavioral, environmental, biological and physical science.
There are two main reasons the work is important to the Convergence in Healthcare movement. The first is U.S. students must have quality STEM education options at each academic level to develop the ability to think and work convergently. Without STEM skills, there will be fewer scientists capable of transcending scientific boundaries to innovate the healthcare sector.
STEM education in the U.S. is underdeveloped compared to competing countries, especially those nations leading scientific innovation on the Asian continent. Organizations such as the NSF, which support STEM education in America, are providing the earliest building blocks of the Convergence in Healthcare movement by giving students a foundation to build on.
The second reason the NSF’s wide-ranging work is important to Convergence in Healthcare is because the agency publicly acknowledged the concept of scientific convergence in general as a research priority.
How the NSF Has Impacted the Convergence Movement
As an organization committed to the convergence of all sciences, the NSF has funded some projects wherein its own research areas overlap with biomedical science. This includes the support of programs and initiatives focused on topics such as tissue and cellular engineering as well as computational neuroscience.
The convergence of the NSF’s research areas and biomedicine resulted in the creation of an artificial retina named the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. The Argus II helps patients who are blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa regain limited vision.
In addition to funding scientific research that intersects with biomedicine, the NSF leaders are also aiming to make the general convergence movement more functional by developing a new common vocabulary for convergence scientists.
According to the NSF leader behind the idea, an understanding of a small collection of core concepts from each scientific discipline could help researchers from any background embrace the interdisciplinary nature of convergence with greater efficiency.
MIT’s Recommendations for the NSF’s Future Involvement in Convergence in Healthcare
In “Convergence: The Future of Health,” academics suggest a few ways the relationship between the NSF and the Convergence in Healthcare movement could be enhanced for the benefit of global human health. The report first recommends a boost in federal funding to expand the work of the NSF, including specific expansion for its support of convergent research.
Apart from the group’s continued support of science education at the K through 12 level, the whitepaper also suggests the NSF participate in a multi-agency working group. The federal agencies participating in the working group would collaborate to develop new, more effective strategies for exploring Convergence in Healthcare.
The MIT whitepaper also suggests the NSF would be an ideal agency to facilitate a cultural revolution among interdisciplinary scientists. The many professionals with wide-ranging backgrounds who are involved with the NSF could be encouraged to connect and relax any rigid commitment to research that falls strictly within their own area of study.
Other suggestions include the creation of a Common Fund for the NSF similar to the one established within the National Institutes of Health. This would consist of a pool of research funding available exclusively to internal projects which share research across a minimum of two different scientific areas.