According to leaders at prestigious U.S. universities, American medical research and development is at a crossroads. For more than a century, the U.S. has been a leader in medical innovation, but today the country is struggling to compete with nations embracing the concept of Convergence in Healthcare.
As defined in “Convergence: The Future of Health,” a 2016 whitepaper sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Convergence in Healthcare movement aims to upend the traditional scientific research model and in its place establish a more integrative approach to studying and solving healthcare issues. Through the amalgamation of concepts from the life science, physical science, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and computing sectors, scientists hope to more fully address medical sector needs, thereby improving the way we prevent, diagnose and treat human illness. Listed here are three key areas of support that convergence needs to succeed.
Citizens can support initiatives to improve STEM education.
Many researchers believe early exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is integral to fostering students’ long-term interest and achievement in these subjects. Introducing young students to these concepts could eventually lead to an increase in the number of students who pursue careers in the sciences, which is necessary for the growth of Convergence in Healthcare.
According to studies from the Brookings Institution, U.S. student scores for science on international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rank only as average, while mathematics scores tend to rank below average. One reason for these scores is a limited access to STEM subjects in many American elementary, middle and high schools. A lack of highly qualified teachers in STEM fields also has an impact. Fortunately, several initiatives exist to address this issue. Among these is a national program to train 100,000 talented teachers in science and math subjects by the year 2021. However, without more support for STEM in schools, there may not be enough employment opportunities for this new cohort of educators.
Grassroots support for STEM education is ultimately important to the success of Convergence in Healthcare. To advance the movement, Americans must promote local initiatives aimed to enhance STEM programs in neighborhood schools while advocating for nationwide initiatives that support the same cause.
Congress can support a federal budget boost for science research and development.
The last chapter of the MIT whitepaper outlining the importance of Convergence in Healthcare gives a primary recommendation for the success of the movement: increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
A part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research. Its mission is “to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.” Convergence in Healthcare represents the best modern tool the NIH could have at its disposal in pursuit of this goal.
The NIH oversees 27 distinct institutes and centers, each with a focus on a specific area of medicine. While NIH leadership has demonstrated interest in the application of convergence to medical research, the current federal budget does not give the agency enough financial freedom to engage in significant amounts of exploratory research. This includes convergent projects designed and led by head investigators with academic backgrounds in engineering or IT, rather than life science.
When accounting for inflation, the present NIH budget is lower than it was in 2003, having declined by more than 20 percent between 2004 and 2015. For Convergence in Healthcare to become a widely accepted concept, convergent medical research must receive the same levels of funding that traditional research projects enjoy. Without support from the U.S. Congress to boost NIH funding, the agency will lack the ability to invest aggressively in convergent projects, which will negatively impact the medical research and development (R&D) sector as well as the convergence movement.
Federal agencies can support the formation of a working group for convergence research.
The idea at the heart of the Convergence in Healthcare movement is that science professionals outside of medical R&D should apply their expertise to this area. Current U.S. research models for every branch of science tend to keep researchers rigidly confined to projects rooted in their own scientific disciplines. In contrast, the convergence movement argues that bringing novel concepts from other sciences to life science research could amplify rates of innovation.
One of the most effective ways to break down research barriers between the sciences is through the formation of an interagency working group, which would combined the financial and intellectual power of some of America’s most prolific research agencies. These include the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Energy. Such a group would make it simpler to collaborate on convergent projects, share facilities and instrumentation and manage the trajectory of the convergence movement to the benefit of each agency’s particular research area.
MIT’s whitepaper suggests this working group could be chartered through the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The group could be highly beneficial in the formation of diverse technical working groups focused on convergence, the formation of a scientific convergence advisory council and the creation of a convergence-based peer review panel, among many other initiatives.