In 2016, a white paper “Convergence: The Future of Health” was published by faculty members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to draw attention to the value and importance of the Convergence in Healthcare movement. In the 73-page report, Convergence in Healthcare is defined as an integrative approach to scientific research that incorporates concepts from the life and physical sciences, engineering, computing, mathematics and chemistry. By unifying these scientific disciplines, academics believe researchers will be able to approach the study of human health in a way that yields innovations in treatment, diagnosis and prevention.
While many American academics recognize the potential impact of the Convergence in Healthcare movement, other crucial sectors in the United States do not, including the U.S. government. Without the full support of both government and academic institutions, the convergence movement will falter — to the detriment of American medical research and development. The current trajectory will prevent the U.S. from remaining globally competitive in the sciences, especially because other countries are already actively investing in Convergence in Healthcare.
Funding and government support
According to “Convergence: The Future of Health,” U.S. spending on medical research and development (R&D) accounted for 57 percent of the global total in 2004. However, that budget has decreased every year since, reducing funding levels for the National Institute of Health (NIH) to almost 25 percent lower than they were in 2004, when accounting for inflation. Funding for science exploration in America has reached such a low point in a time of vast technological advancement that many experts in the field are issuing warnings about the implications of this trend. In 2017, an MIT professor developed a short video to explain the important role scientific development has played in the U.S., and outlines the dangers of allowing the sector to “fall into disrepair” without federal support. The same year, The Atlantic published an article asserting U.S. scientists were preparing for “a lost generation in American research.” Unfortunately, these trends show no sign of abating in 2018.
Meanwhile, for several years, news articles have been drawing attention to other countries filling the research gap. Most of this growth is concentrated in Asian countries, which collectively increased investment in medical R&D by more than 9 percent each year between 2004 and 2014. In China, much of the investment in medical R&D is allotted specifically for convergent research, as seen in the development of the Suzhou Industrial Park’s International Nanotech Cluster in China. Here, hundreds of companies and academic laboratories convene to work on convergence-based research with support from the country’s Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of National Science and Technology and the Jiangsu provincial government. In 2018, the South Korea government announced that the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy would seek to enhance collaboration between the country’s tech and healthcare companies to directly expand Convergence in Healthcare.
Though the differences in government funding are an important factor in the growth of Convergence in Healthcare, another equally pressing issue is the state of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S. Typical school curricula do not expose children to STEM at a young age, and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights indicates that as many as half of American high schools do not offer calculus classes, and only two-thirds offer a physics option — two core STEM subjects. Meanwhile, at the undergraduate level, of those students who enroll in college intending to study a STEM subject, more than 40 percent will change majors or leave school. In December 2017, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics indicated that first-time STEM majors in the U.S. changed majors 6 percent more often than non-STEM majors.
In contrast, in China and India, the number of students graduating with STEM degrees is increasing rapidly. The two countries rank first and second, respectively, for countries with the most STEM graduates, according to statistics gathered by the World Economic Forum. China is in the middle of what experts are calling an “education boom” — they anticipate the number of Chinese college graduates may increase by up to 300 percent by the year 2030, as opposed to a predicted 30 percent increase in the United States. Besides funding and academic support for STEM education, China is also focused on creating exciting, top-tier job opportunities to attract the best STEM talent from around the world.
Steps forward for the U.S.
While convergence research is good news for human health no matter which country invests in it, the United States is currently in a position to not only lose its global reputation as a medical innovator, but also to experience a massive loss of talent. To address this issue, “Convergence: The Future of Health” offers several key suggestions to stop the decline of medical research in the U.S.
The white paper’s first and most significant recommendation is to increase the budget of the NIH above inflationary levels. It also notes this rise in funding must be sustainable. The NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, and a significant boost to its budget will allow for greater expansion of scientific research initiatives across the board. The white paper states that to effectively boost Convergence in Healthcare, a minimum of 20 percent of the new NIH budget should be awarded specifically to researchers engaging in convergent work across all 27 of the NIH’s institutes and centers.
While the white paper suggests convergence-based skills must be developed at earlier levels of education, its most important suggestion for U.S. education is to encourage cross-departmental education at the post-secondary level. The rigid structure of single discipline departments does not lend itself to convergent thinking. Instead, the paper promotes the value of flexible academic advisement models, cross-departmental hiring practices and interdepartmental collaboration on research projects for STEM students.