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MIT Promotes 'Convergence' as Model for 21st Century Research
- By Dian Schaffhauser
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put forth a new model for research that applies the technical tools of engineering, along with its disciplined design approach, to life science research. The model, known as "convergence," calls for a rethinking of how scientific research is conducted and promotes an integrated approach for achieving innovation. A white paper on the topic was recently presented at a forum put on by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering" reported that a beneficiary of this new approach will be biomedicine, which is already showing how convergence can help scientists make breakthroughs, such as drug delivery mechanisms that are nanoscale-sized, more discrete chemical and disease sensing, new predictive computer models of disease, and more affordable forms of biometric analysis for personalized medicine.
The authors of the report, 12 MIT researchers, also suggested that the United States capitalize on the trend of convergence to address the issue of health care.
"Convergence is a broad rethinking of how all scientific research can be conducted, so that we capitalize on a range of knowledge bases, from microbiology to computer science to engineering design," said Phillip Sharp, one of the report's authors and a Nobel Laureate, at the AAAS gathering. "It entails collaboration among research groups but, more deeply, the integration of disciplinary approaches that were originally viewed as separate and distinct. This merging of technologies, processes, and devices into a unified whole will create new pathways and opportunities for scientific and technological advancement."
The intersection of scientific discipline is already under discussion in multiple places, the report said, but "more must be done." That includes challenging the historic structure of universities that are organized into departments focused on specific disciplines. The authors recommended that universities "develop new courses/programs that prepare students, postdoctoral researchers, and fellows for convergence-driven research. This means creating new curricula, apprenticeships, and training programs to enable cross-disciplinary expertise." They also emphasized the importance of woo students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Likewise, the report said, the funding of research will also require transformation, since convergence-structured research doesn't fit "neatly" into the current funding categories or missions of federal research institutes, such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. "Some interagency research does take place," the researchers acknowledged. "But such projects seem to depend on informal friendships or on slowly established working relationships between individuals in various agencies. Mechanisms to enable and foster such connections need to be institutionalized."
One specific recommendation was to increase opportunities for federal agency researchers to take on short-term assignments in other research agencies.