"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," MIT Institute Professor and Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, one of the report's authors, told the AAAS forum.
"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."
Sharp and the other MIT authors say that convergence offers the potential for a "Third Revolution" in biomedicine that may be as profound as the two life-science revolutions that preceded it: the breakthroughs accompanying the development of molecular and cellular biology, and the sequencing of the human genome, which has made it possible to identify the genetic foundations of many diseases.
Graphic: Christine Daniloff
Convergence also provides a blueprint for addressing the country's future medical and healthcare challenges, which will only increase as the population ages and diseases such as Alzheimer's become more prevalent. However, federal investment in biomedical research is critical — "and a smart investment if we are to keep our biomedical research the finest in the world," said Sharp. As an example, he cited NIH investments in heart-disease research, which average $4 per year per American and have helped to cut the incidence of fatal heart attacks and stroke by more than 60 percent since 1975.
A new model
The report, "The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering," noted the impact that convergence is already having in a broad array of fields.
Just as advances in information technology, materials, imaging, nanotechnology and related fields — coupled with advances in computing, modeling and simulation — have transformed the physical sciences, so are they are beginning to transform life science. The result is critical new biology-related fields, such as bioengineering, computational biology, synthetic biology and tissue engineering.
At the same time, biological models (understanding complex, self-arranged systems) are already transforming engineering and the physical sciences, making possible advances in biofuels, food supply, viral self assembly and much more.
The report gives particular focus to biomedicine, a field that is already being transformed by convergence. At MIT, for example, scientists are using nanoparticles to transport time-release anticancer drugs directly to cancerous cells, developing drugs that fight diseases without damaging healthy tissues and cells, and improving new predictive models of disease.
The report says providing adequate financial support and a well-organized focus within NIH for convergence research are key to the success of the convergence model, as is encouraging investigation that crosses existing research boundaries. Among the report's other recommendations are establishing a convergence "ecosystem," which would build connections across funding agencies; reforming the peer-review process to support interdisciplinary grants; and educating, expanding and supporting the next generation of convergence researchers.
Other MIT speakers at the forum included Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a winner of the Millennium Technology Prize and the National Medal of Science; Paula Hammond, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering; and Tyler Jacks, director of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and the David H. Koch Professor of Biology.
Commentators at the forum included Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg of the Food and Drug Administration; Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National institute of Child Health and Human Development at NIH; and Dr. Keith Yamamoto, professor and executive vice dean, University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, and chair of the Coalition for Life Sciences.