MIT Calls for More 'Convergence' in Research

A group of prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers has coined a new name for research that combines disciplines—"convergence," they call it—and called for policies to support these kinds of cross-cutting studies. The 12 scientists outlined their ideas today in a white paper released in Washington, D.C., at a forum held by MIT and AAAS (ScienceInsider's publisher).

According to organizer and MIT cancer biologist Phillip Sharp, the 34-page white paper grew out of an "organic movement" among the dozen faculty members to try to flesh out where biomedical research is headed. Their report defines convergence as "the merging of distinct technologies, processing disciplines, or devices into a unified whole that creates a host of new pathways and opportunities" by combining life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. Convergence is the "third revolution" in biomedical research, one that will be needed to make health care more affordable, the report says. (The first two revolutions were molecular biology following the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA and the genomics era and sequencing of the human genome.)

The convergence model is already under way at MIT, the report points out with some examples.

For instance, researchers there are working on deploying nanoparticles to deliver drugs to cancer cells and a tiny device that traps tumor cells in a patient's blood to help track cancer's spread.

To encourage more convergence, the report makes several recommendations. The National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget should at least keep pace with biomedical research inflation of 3% to 4% annually, which hasn't happened in recent years. NIH could fund "convergence centers" at universities, and it should add scientists from more disciplines to its peer-review panels. NIH should also fund training programs for convergence scientists, the report says. Meanwhile, the White House science office should launch a convergence initiative to get all research agencies to fund more cross-cutting biological science.

The paper echoes numerous previous reports encouraging agencies to support more interdisciplinary research—along with the usual plea for more money. But several federal officials at the forum this morning seemed enthusiastic nonetheless. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, had a warning, though: Researchers are all for new funding models "as long as we fund them," he said. "It's going to take ... everybody stepping back from their self-interest a little bit."