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Convergence Exemplars

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Biological machines call "bio-bots" are a fusion of biology and engineering. They are powered by skeletal muscle cells controlled by electronic impulses. This work is being funded through NSF's Science and Technoly Center program.

The Center for Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems ’ mission is to create a new scientific discipline for building living, multi-cellular machines that solve real world problems in health, security, and the environment.

Credit: Janet Sinn-Hanlon, DesignGroup@VetMed for the Center for Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems

The major reports on convergence [1-6] discuss numerous examples of convergence, as well as describing future opportunities for convergent approaches to meet a variety of research challenges. The examples in [1-3] contain a comprehensive discussion of the impact of convergence in the health sciences, while the examples in [4-6] are focused more on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology.
References

  • MIT Washington Office. 2011. The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering
  • MIT 2016. Convergence: The Future of Health. MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edited by Sharp, Hockfield, and Jacks
  • NRC (National Research Council). 2014. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • NSF (National Science Foundation). 2002. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: NANOTECHNOLOGY, BIOTECHNOLOGY, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE. Edited by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, National Science Foundation.
  • Roco, MC et al 2013. Converging Knowledge, Technology and Society: Beyond Convergence of Nano-Bio- Info-Cognitive Technologies, edited by M.C. Roco, W.S. Bainbridge, B. Tonn and G. Whitesides, National Science Foundation/World Technology Evaluation Center report, Springer 2013, Boston (available on http://www.wtec.org/NBIC2-report).
  • W. S. Bainbridge and M. C. Roco 2016. Handbook of Science and Technology Convergence, Springer Reference, Berlin.

The examples listed below describe related but complementary exemplars of convergence.

Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS)
A convergence between the life sciences, physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering is driving research in Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). These are smart networked systems with embedded sensors, processors, and actuators, which are designed to sense and interact with the physical world. In CPS systems, the joint behavior of the “cyber” and “physical” elements of the system is critical - computing, control, sensing and networking can be deeply integrated into every component, and the actions of components and systems must be safe and interoperable.

Important challenges in a number of sectors are now being addressed by CPS research [1]:

  • Agriculture: CPS technologies will play a key role in precision agriculture, which is making food production smarter, more efficient, and sustainable.
  • Building Infrastructure and Transportation: Advances in cyber physical systems are changing the way buildings, roads, vehicles, and bridges are controlled and operated.
  • Energy: CPS technologies are essential to the creation of a smart electric grid, which will provide an adaptive, resilient, efficient, and cost-effective electricity distribution system.
  • Healthcare: The opportunities provided by inexpensive sensing and 3-D printing are leading to the development of a broad range of transformative cyber-physical medical products.
  • Manufacturing: CPS technologies are vital to preserving our national competitiveness in manufacturing and for national security. The “convergence of the global industrial system with the power of advanced computing, analytics, low-cost sensing, and new levels of connectivity permitted by the Internet” has also been called the Industrial Internet [2].

NSF Investments in Cyber-Physical Systems
The Foundation’s primary investment in CPS is through the Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) Solicitation 17-529. The goal of the CPS program is to develop the core system science needed to engineer complex cyber-physical systems that people can use or interact with and depend upon. The program aims to foster a research community committed to advancing research and education in CPS and to transitioning CPS science and technology into engineering practice. By abstracting from the particulars of specific systems and application domains, the CPS program seeks to reveal cross-cutting fundamental scientific and engineering principles that underpin the integration of cyber and physical elements across all application sectors. There is also a convergence of CPS technologies and research thrusts that underpin Smart & Connected Communities and the Internet of Things.

In September 2016 the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced three, five-year "Frontier" awards, totaling more than $13 million, to advance cyber-physical systems (CPS) -- engineered systems that integrate computational and physical components to improve productivity, efficiency and the quality of life [3].

The new NSF-funded projects will develop technologies to:

  • Monitor and mitigate noise pollution in cities.
  • Quickly identify and overcome problems in manufacturing environments.
  • Improve the capabilities of autonomous vehicles.

In these projects researchers from the computer science and engineering fields will partner with scholars in urban planning, materials science, music and other non-traditional domains to design solutions that can be applied to new environments and tasks. Frontier projects are designed to address CPS challenges that cannot be achieved by smaller efforts.

To complement its research program in CPS, NSF is also exploring issues for training and education. NSF asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study the topic, organize workshops, and prepare interim and final reports examining the need for and content of a CPS education. The results of this study are intended to inform those who might support efforts to develop curricula and materials; faculty and university administrators; industries with needs for CPS workers; and current and potential students about intellectual foundations, workforce requirements, employment opportunities, and curricular needs [4].

References

NSF Science and Technology Centers (STC)
NSF established the Science and Technology Research (STC) Centers Program in 1989 to help maintain U.S. preeminence in science and technology and ensure the requisite pool of scientists with the quality and breadth of experience required to meet the changing needs of science and society.

The Centers have proven to be an excellent mechanism to foster and develop convergent approaches. They promote scientific advances on complex research problems that benefit from a sustained interaction among disciplines, and they facilitate the formation of teams to address research challenges in areas of national priority. The STC program is one of the principal means by which NSF has provided support for emerging fields of scientific and technological inquiry, especially those that cross over the organizational domains of established NSF directorates and offices. [1]

The Center of Advanced Materials for Purification of Water with Systems (The WaterCAMPWS) [2] is a research and education center for increasing water supplies for human use through enhanced treatment technologies. The goals of the Center are grounded in a belief that the challenges in increasing potable water supplies can be solved by focusing on the basic science of the aqueous interface, and developing advanced materials and systems that exploit the unique physics and chemistry at the interface. The Center adopted a novel convergence strategy that initially built upon the expertise of researchers in material science, mechanical engineering, and chemistry who are not part of the traditional water research community.

“Our core thesis is that by developing the human resources to study the science of the aqueous interface with new materials synthesis and characterization that are integrated into water treatment systems, The WaterCAMPWS will greatly advance water purification. Our legacy will be a rich body of intellectual achievement, newly developed materials and engineered systems, and highly educated students, researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders in clean water, and to become the preeminent source of knowledge for advanced materials and systems in water purification.” [2]

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) is an interdisciplinary research consortium of seven institutions in Atlanta, Georgia (Georgia State University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the three schools in the Atlanta University Center: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College). Through research groups called Collaboratories CBN scientists build synergistic inter-disciplinary partnerships among investigators using different models, technologies and approaches. These groups have focused on the neuroscience of affiliation, aggression, fear, reproduction and memory and cognition.  [3]

CBN played a major role in the development of the field of behavioral neuroscience. “It catalyzed the way brain is studied: rather than focusing on the (behavioral) symptoms, CBN focused on brain regions for examining neural systems that govern social behavior. The center brought an identity, credibility, and expansion to the field of behavioral neuroscience, and in the process created a brand name.” [1]

Colorado State University’s Center for Multi-Scale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) [4] is pioneering the use of multi-scale modeling in the study of atmospheric processes. Their research is focused on improving the representation of cloud processing in climate models. The field of atmospheric science has traditionally been organized around three discretely separate scales of analysis: small scale (100 times smaller than the earth); medium scale- (earth scale); large scale-(whole atmosphere). This division presents major challenges when trying to understand the role of clouds in climate simulation, because clouds are many times smaller than the grid cells used in the climate models.

The availability of more powerful computers, available only in the past 10 years, has enabled researchers to attack old problems in new ways by addressing the conceptually and computationally complex research issues that had stymied discovery in the past. Multi-scale modeling of atmospheric processes created a new activity with the discipline of atmospheric sciences. The multi-scale approach has required the participation of researchers with many different areas of expertise, and has led to the creation of a new community of researchers. [1]

The Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM) [5] is a Science and Technology Center focused on the interdisciplinary study of intelligence. This effort is a multi-institutional collaboration headquartered at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, with managing partners at Harvard University.

The Center is working to create a new field, the Science and Engineering of Intelligence, dedicated to developing a computationally based understanding of human intelligence and establishing an engineering practice based on that understanding.

The Center employs a convergence approach in bringing together computer scientists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists to work in close collaboration. It is grounded in the belief that seminal contributions are most likely to emerge from collaborative efforts. Collaborative projects between and among participants, rather than efforts limited to the research group of an individual participant, are the desired outcome. The Center is also founded on the premise that its objectives are best reached by establishing a new field of study. To further this end, Center participants, and especially our students and postdocs, are expected to have broad interests and participate energetically in Center research and education activities.
References

Synthetic Biology
A convergence among the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering is driving the emerging field of synthetic biology, which aims to construct new biological entities and redesign existing ones. Synthetic biology is a set of ideas, tools, and techniques integrating engineering and biology. It employs engineering design principles in the development of new functions or applications in areas such as health, energy, and the environment. Driven by the need for standardized and sustainable biological parts, synthetic biology applies engineering principles to achieve high levels of control in manipulating or creating new cells and organisms. Synthetic biology offers promise as a tool to address key challenges such as food security and sustainable energy.

On July 9-10, 2009, under the auspices of the National Academies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Royal Society, an international symposium was held in Washington, DC to bring together the scientific, engineering, legal, and policy communities along with members of the public to explore the opportunities and challenges posed by synthetic biology [1].
 
NSF Investments in Synthetic Biology
The National Science Foundation has supported transformative research in synthetic biology for over a decade. A historical summary of NSF investments in synthetic biology has been compiled by Dr. Susanne von Bodman, Program Director for the NSF Systems and Synthetic Biology program and Dr. Theresa Good, Deputy Division Director for the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. They estimate the total US investment in Synthetic Biology during the period 2006- 2013 to be in excess of $600 million [2].

Formed in 2006, the NSF Engineering Research Center SynBerc [3] uses synthetic biology to build the tools and technologies to address challenges in healthcare, energy, and the environment. SynBerc is a multi-institutional consortium with faculty members from UC-Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and UCS. It seeks to build a foundation for synthetic biology, and its mission statement reflects a convergence strategy:

  • develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
  • train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in engineering biology; and
  • engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of engineering biology.[3]

The Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, CBiRC [4], was established in 2008 as an NSF Engineering Research Center at Iowa State University. (CBiRC) is developing the tools, components and materials needed to transform carbohydrate feedstocks into bio-based chemicals. The Center seeks to combine bio-catalysis and chemical catalysis CBiRC to create powerful systems that have the potential to nurture a sustainable bio-based chemical industry. CBiRC believes it can enable the growth of the nascent bio-based chemical industry with key bio-based foundational intermediates that deliver an array of drop-in chemistry or similar functionality to existing fossil-carbon-based chemicals.

In 2008 NSF also collaborated with the UK Physical Science Research Council to organize an intensive workshop (an IDEAS Lab or Sandpit) in synthetic biology. A second IDEAS lab with a focus on Improving Photosynthesis was held in 2011 in collaboration with the British Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). [2]

The NSF Engineering Directorate has made investments in synthetic biology through their core programs, as well as through special competitions in the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program. In addition, the Small Business Innovative Research and the Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs invited proposals with translational potential in synthetic biology. [2]

In 2012 the NSF Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) instituted a new program in the area of Systems and Synthetic Biology (SSB). The program seeks to encourage a cross-disciplinary, more theory-driven science and to use synthetic biology approaches to probe fundamental questions in biology. This new program has in turn strengthened internal collaborative efforts at NSF between Engineering and programs in the Physical, Biological and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences. [2]
In 2012 the NSF began its participation in ERASynBio [5], an international initiative of funding agencies to promote the development of Synthetic Biology and to cultivate and coordinate national efforts and funding programs.

References

Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology and its offspring comprise the most thoroughly studied examples of convergence. Through a series of books and papers over the past 15 years, Roco, Bainbridge, and their collaborators have systematically documented the role of convergence in the development of new lines of inquiry along with future opportunities. See for example, [1-11].

Nanotechnology is a foundational, general purpose science and technology for all domains of knowledge and the economy dealing with matter, and for which a long-term vision (2000-2030) [10] for disciplines convergence, science-based nanosystems integration, and creation of new converging technology platforms was formulated in 1999-2000 [10-12]. It came into being through convergence of chemistry, physics, engineering, and many other disciplines, notably biology and materials in which proteins and crystals are nanoscale structures, computer science in which the smallest components of electronic circuits approach the nanoscale, and mathematics which is essential for all kinds of research and design. Engineering, through its major components of mechanical, chemical, biomedical and electrical engineering, played a central role not only in developing the tools and creating nanoscale materials, devices and systems, but also energizing and coordinating the collaborative efforts across disciplines and fields of relevance. [6]

NSF Investments in Nanotechnology [6]
NSF supports nanoscale science and engineering throughout all the research and education directorates at a level about $490 million in FY 2015 as a means to advance discovery, invention, and innovation and to integrate various fields of research. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) fosters interdisciplinary research at atomic and molecular levels for about 6,000 active awards with full or partial contents on nanoscale science and engineering (NSE). About 45% of the nanotechnology awards are at the confluence with at least another foundational science and technology domain - biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences.  Approximately 10,000 students and teachers will be educated and trained in NSE in FY 2015. This is the NSF’s contribution to the multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI, $1.5 billion in FY 2015) encompasses the systematic understanding, organization, manipulation, and control of matter at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels in the size range of about 1 to 100 nanometers [11]. NNI cumulatively totals over $22 billion since the inception of the NNI in 2001. “Nanotechnology development has become an international scientific and technological endeavor with focused R&D programs in over 80 countries after the announcement of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States in 2000. Global revenues of nano-enabled products reached $1 trillion in 2013 according to industry surveys. The annual U.S. and global revenue growth rate increased from about 25% during 2001-2010 to about 40% during 2010-2014, suggesting that this recent interval is the beginning of the ascendant section of the S-development curve.” [10]

References

  • NSF (National Science Foundation). 2002. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: NANOTECHNOLOGY, BIOTECHNOLOGY, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE. Edited by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, National Science Foundation.
  • Roco MC 2002. Coherence and divergence of megatrends in science and engineering. J Nanopart Res 4:9-19
  • Roco MC and Bainbridge WS 2013. The new world of discovery, invention, and innovation: convergence of knowledge, technology, and society. J Nanopart Res 15:1946
  • Roco, MC et al 2013. Converging Knowledge, Technology and Society: Beyond Convergence of Nano-Bio- Info-Cognitive Technologies, edited by M.C. Roco, W.S. Bainbridge, B. Tonn and G. Whitesides, National Science Foundation/World Technology Evaluation Center report, Springer 2013, Boston (available on http://www.wtec.org/NBIC2-report).
  • W. S. Bainbridge and M. C. Roco 2016. Handbook of Science and Technology Convergence, Springer Reference, Berlin.
  • W. S. Bainbridge and M. C. Roco 2016. Science and technology convergence: with emphasis for nanotechnology-inspired convergence J Nanopart Res (2016) 18:211
  • Roco, M.C., R.S. Williams and P. Alivisatos, Eds., 1999. “Nanotechnology Research Directions”, National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), White House (WH), 230 pages, Washington, D.C.; Publ. by Kluwer, currently Springer, Dordrecht, 2000 (available on: http://www.wtec.org/loyola/nano/IWGN.Research.Directions/
  • Roco, M.C. 2011. “The Long View of Nanotechnology Development: the National Nanotechnology Initiative at 10 years”, J. Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 13, 427-445. (Available on: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/nano/reports/MCR_11-0201_JNR13_NNI+at+10+years_11051_2010_192_print.pdf)
  • Roco, M.C., C.A. Mirkin and M.C. Hersam, “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020”, Springer, 2011, 600p. Available on www.wtec.org/nano2/
  • Roco, M.C., 2016, “Building foundational knowledge and infrastructure for nanotechnology: 2000-2030”, in Nanotechnology: delivering the promise (eds. Cheng et al.), Vo. 1, American Chemical Society (ACS) Volume, Washington, DC, pp 39-52
  • NSTC (National Science and Technology Council)/White House. 2016. Supplement to the President’s Budget for the Fiscal year 2017: The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Washington, D.C. Available on: http://www.nano.gov/sites/default/files/pub_resource/nni_fy17_budget_supplement.pdf