According to the whitepaper “Convergence: The Future of Health” published June 2016, an increasing number of scientists and academics from leading academic institutions believe the third life sciences revolution lies with the advent of Convergence in Healthcare. This movement seeks to bring together professionals from diverse areas of science to innovate the current model of medical research. More specifically, convergence seeks to integrate the life science, physical science, computation, engineering, chemistry and mathematics fields for a more comprehensive approach to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.
The authors of the white paper believe Convergence in Healthcare is the best opportunity the United States has to surmount the growing number of health issues plaguing people around the world. The authors’ major recommendation to strengthen the movement is for the government to provide greater support to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — a federal organization with the potential to play a major role in advancing Convergence in Healthcare.
Listed here are three reasons why the NIH is crucial to the future of convergence:
The NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research around the world.
According to its website, the NIH provides more public funding for biomedical research than any other organization in the world. This financial support is widely distributed to provide grant opportunities, development contracts, training and career development programs and even loan repayment assistance for scientists conducting important research in biomedicine.
The NIH represents an important source of support to the medical research community, yet overall levels of federal funding for research and development (R&D) programs have fallen by more than 20 percent since 2003. When the number is adjusted for inflation, current levels of funding for scientific R&D are still lower than they were in the early 2000s, despite increases made to the national scientific research budget under the Obama administration.
Even beset by lackluster funding, the NIH remains one of the largest sources of support for the medical research community, and thereby for Convergence in Healthcare. However, a boost to the NIH’s own budget is vital to the full development of the Convergence in Healthcare movement. Currently, the NIH only allocates around 3 percent of funding to biomedical research projects in which the principal investigators on a project are engineering, physical science, computer sciences or math and statistics professionals. A budget increase would allow more financial support to be directed toward convergence-related initiatives. The “Convergence: The Future of Health” authors recommend at least 20 percent of the NIH’s annual budget be dedicated to convergence research across all fields of biomedicine.
The structure of the NIH is naturally suited to convergent healthcare research.
The NIH is comprised of 27 institutes and centers (ICs), each of which focuses on a specific area of research in biomedicine. For example, the National Cancer Institute is the NIH’s oldest and one of its most prolific organizations, studying cancer in all of its forms. The NIH also oversees institutes focused on specific areas of the human body, such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, as well as centers dedicated to research areas such as exploration of the human genome and childhood development.
Apart from the obvious benefits of having a well-funded and prestigious organization collectively overseeing so many areas of healthcare research simultaneously, the NIH’s structure naturally lends itself to convergence. Collaboration on convergent research could be more easily conducted between branches of the same organization than through groups employed by separate entities, and the NIH could operate a working group housed through the Office of the Director to establish strong, cohesive partnerships between ICs. The NIH Common Fund could be used as an incentive for ICs to collaborate on convergent projects, which could help popularize the approach within many areas of biomedicine. Most importantly, it could potentially lead to the development of novel technologies and new discoveries across many different areas of medicine, and even encourage other major research organizations to follow suit.
NIH support for convergent research has already shown promising results.
The evidence that Convergence in Healthcare can flourish with the support of the NIH is already visible in a handful of substantial projects the organization has supported in recent years. The NIH’s participation in the convergence-friendly BRAIN Initiative, for example, has led to the development of exciting new tools for individual neural connection mapping and observing the learning process in the brain. New strides have also been made in the treatment of abnormal brain circuitry. The NIH has a history of supporting convergent research as far back as the early 1990s, when it collaborated with the Department of Energy to facilitate a genetics and supercomputing research venture that eventually led to a revolution in genomics.
The willingness of such a substantial, federally funded organization to engage with a groundbreaking movement as Convergence in Healthcare is a singular opportunity in the U.S. medical sector. It’s vitally important to the future of the movement that this engagement be fostered. Without the support of major organizations such as the NIH, Convergence in Healthcare will take longer to become the rule in medical research, rather than the exception, which will hinder the industry’s rate of innovation.