The concept of convergence is having a transformative impact on the sciences. Considered by many academics to be the third revolution of the life sciences since the discovery of molecular and cellular biology in the 20th century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) defined convergence in 2011 as “the merging of distinct technologies, processing disciplines, or devices into a unified whole.” Convergence in their example occurs through the integrative work of scientists from many different disciplines.
While convergence can be applied to any area of scientific research, MIT and other groups are particularly focused on its potential in the field of medicine. According to the institute’s most recent white paper on the subject, Convergence in Healthcare is the answer to the dire need for medical innovation in a world of escalating global health issues. To help readers gain a better understanding of convergence and its importance to the future of biomedicine, listed below are the three primary characteristics of convergent research across the sciences and how they relate to the Convergence in Healthcare movement specifically.
Convergent research is driven by the need to address a specific scientific problem, challenge, or opportunity.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), convergence is a research strategy adopted when a particularly challenging or unfamiliar problem presents itself to the science community. The issue may be rooted in the need to address a profound scientific question, or it may be linked to more practical needs. In either case, convergent research is typically used as a tool for problem-solving rather than a means for exploration of broader scientific concepts.
This characteristic can be seen directly in convergence-based research in the healthcare sector. Many convergence-based healthcare research initiatives are thoroughly detailed in the 2016 report “Convergence: The Future of Health,” authored by leading academics from universities across the U.S. A few examples of specific problems in biomedicine addressed through convergent research include the community’s lack of adequate knowledge about the brain’s structures and the diseases that affect it, the problem of deadly disease-spreading mosquitoes in developing countries, and the issue of late diagnoses for certain cancers. In a broader sense, the medical community hopes Convergence in Healthcare will address three specific problems affecting global public health: rising healthcare costs; the lack of effective diagnostic tools, preventive measures, and cures for many diseases; and the waning position of the US as a medical innovator.
Convergent research requires deep integration between a number of scientific disciplines.
In its overview of convergence in the sciences, the NSF also identifies “deep integration across disciplines” as a primary characteristic of convergent research. By definition, convergence integrates multiple areas of science via the cooperative work of researchers from different scientific backgrounds until theories, knowledge, methods, challenges, and even vocabulary words are intermingled. This kind of work is meant to form new, integrative research frameworks that allow professionals to work more efficiently and intuitively alongside each other.
This concept is the key reason academics believe Convergence in Healthcare is the best strategy for addressing the most complex medical dilemmas of our age. Medicine has historically relied on interdisciplinary research to find new ways to heal the world, but convergence takes this a step further to create a stronger connection across interdisciplinary lines. Healthcare is in desperate need of innovation, and convergence gives the community a blueprint for achieving it.
Making Convergence in Healthcare the standard for medical research would create an industry-wide culture in which professionals from fields such as engineering, mathematics, chemistry, computing, and physics feel comfortable applying core concepts and ideas from their own fields to biomedicine. The ultimate goal is the discovery of new, life-saving ideas that would not be possible without this unique cohesion between different fields of knowledge.
Convergent research has the support of leaders at the highest levels of science and academia in the U.S.
The term “convergence” and the details behind the concept were coined by a group of 12 scientists from MIT just seven years ago. While containing fewer specifics than the more recent 2016 white paper, the early report outlines the importance and value of cooperative research between the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering fields in a way that exceeds collaboration. Beyond support at MIT, this concept has been embraced by the likes of the NSF, which allocates specific funding for convergence-based projects and has dedicated a portion of its website to outlining the value of the movement. In addition, in spring 2018, the NSF published a letter announcing that the growth of convergence research ranked among “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investment.”
This kind of large-scale support is characteristic of the convergence movement in general, but especially in the medical sector. It is championed as a crucial tool in the future of medicine by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, universities, and private research institutions alike. Ultimately, this support from the brightest minds in the industry is the best chance that convergence has to take root and become recognized as a valuable research strategy across all sciences.