Is 'Convergence' the Next Revolution in Science?

The first edition of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" appeared in 1962. His vision revolutionized the way we think about science, and it has given us a new way to look at change in "science" itself. Whereas previous visions of science saw science as an accumulation of all that had been learned over history, Kuhn envisioned science as having, at any one time, a worldview, or 'paradigm,' of its environment.

Kuhn postulated that most scientists engage in 'normal science' that often results in solid, but relatively incremental gains, that nevertheless accumulated and collectively contributed to move research and subsequent scientific knowledge forward. When anomalies arose, then some individual(s) stepped out of the paradigm, and proposed a new principle or law. If the scientific community accepted the proposed change, then science experienced a 'paradigm shift', and the new science proceeds with that new paradigm.

Paradigm shifts are important, and a necessary part of life. Things do change, and we have to adjust and adapt to that change. Perhaps not surprisingly, important paradigm shifts often come from the young. It usually takes a long time to effect a paradigm shift -- often as much as 20-25 years -- which, perhaps not so coincidently, is about the life of a generation.

A relatively recent white paper emanating from MIT justifiably argues, in my opinion, that the intersections of arrays of scientists (from many disciplinary areas), engineers, mathematicians, as well as individuals with a host of many other professional talents, will be the next Kuhnian scientific revolution, and in fact, the 'Third' biomedical revolution (the first and second being, respectively, 'Cell & Molecular Biology' and 'Genomics). This new revolution is broadly known as Convergence.

Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, one of the authors of the MIT white paper, articulated the importance of Convergence well at a recent gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He noted: "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. 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."

Enhancing this intersection of scientific disciplines is already under discussion in multiple places with the recognition that the research of academic scientists has become increasingly more collaborative and interdisciplinary in recent years as investigators 'cross boundaries' to explore agenda's in areas such as stem cell research, nanotechnology, or environmental studies. Furthermore, the opportunities provided by a technology-enhanced shrinking world, university investigators worldwide can easily join forces with colleagues worldwide. Such collaborations now also often extend to allow faculty to regularly interact with the corporate world because of the ability to use state-of-the-art facilities often provided by some firms as well as secure corporate funding for research for projects of joint interest.

So what is slowing the 'Convergence' movement? While one can envision many answers to this question, perhaps the two that are most notable is the university structure itself and, obviously, the need for funding.

A growing consensus of individuals, including those both internal and external to 'The Academy' believes that a highly structured academic organizational framework may be one very significant impediment. Interdisciplinary collaborations fit awkwardly at best into an academic structure that is layered into separate, discipline-based departments, often distributed eclectically throughout campus geography. This is not to say that academic departments do not serve important purposes -- indeed, the clustering of similarly trained specialists offers a common intellectual framework for deepening the knowledge base within traditionally important disciplines. However, 'tight' departments can also often create obstacles to inhibit convergent collaborations. Such obstacles might include the discouragement of teaching interdisciplinary subjects, the preference for hiring faculty who fit squarely within traditional subject areas and methods of inquiry, and not 'counting' research outcomes and publications of a team-driven convergent manner for faculty colleagues when they are up for tenure and/or promotion.

Fortunately, academic 'walls' can also often be nothing more than semi-permeable membranes. The growth of 'research centers' on, or clustered near, campuses offers a wealth of opportunities for the collaborations necessary for convergent research. And high quality research centers offer far more than 'space' for research. The intentionality of building a set of community-catalyzing spaces, fueled by essentials such as quality food, coffee and comfortable surroundings (with plenty of whiteboards to boot), are also the hallmark of successful intellectual centers of convergent thought. Such essentials of community building cause remarkable random collisions of the mind to occur.

Funding convergent research provides its own set of challenges in today's economically challenged world of U.S. science. Concerns heard from funding agencies generally focus on limited dollar-availability resulting in the likelihood of larger, collaborative grants conceivably taking dollars away from individual investigator awards. 'Convergent' research investigators themselves often fret about uneven reviews from reviewers who look at joint proposals with a more disciplinary-focused eye than looking at the trajectory of the collaboration itself, and (as one might expect) not enough money in the collaborative grant programs. Of course, there is always the private sector funding through private foundations, business-industry resources or private capital investment, with each of these avenues of funding having its own set of pros and cons. A good perspective on the benefits, trials, and tribulations of collaborative proposal writing, with hopefully ensuing resources, can be found in an insightful article entitled "Which Comes First, Collaboration or Grant Writing?"

Convergence indeed represents a new era of solving complex scientific questions, certainly in, but not limited to, the biomedical sciences. While the evolution of this new paradigm of research will not supplant all of what we know as basic research by individuals (or collaborations), it does indeed point the way toward new opportunities to conduct "high risk, high reward" and/or "use-inspired" research that, potentially, can help to not only prove of a benefit to humankind and our world, but also reshape the human infrastructure of the university communities where much of the research will occur.