Convergence Research at NSF
Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering, with graduate student Scott Keene characterizing the electrochemical properties of an artificial synapse for neural network computing. They are part of a team that has created the new device.
The new artificial synapse mimics the way synapses in the brain learn through the signals that cross them. This is a significant energy savings over traditional computing, which involves separately processing information and then storing it into memory. Here, the processing creates the memory.
This synapse may one day be part of a more brain-like computer, which could be especially beneficial for computing that works with visual and auditory signals. Examples of this are seen in voice-controlled interfaces and driverless cars. Past efforts in this field have produced high-performance neural networks supported by artificially intelligent algorithms but these are still distant imitators of the brain that depend on energy-consuming traditional computer hardware.
Credit: L.A. Cicero
Through the Dear Colleague Letter: Growing Convergence Research at NSF (NSF 17-065), the Foundation seeks to highlight the value of convergence as a process for catalyzing new research directions and advancing scientific discovery and innovation. This Dear Colleague Letter describes an initial set of opportunities to explore Convergence approaches within four of the research-focused NSF Big Ideas:
General inquiries about this opportunity may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is Convergence?
Convergence can be characterized as the deep integration of knowledge, techniques, and expertise from multiple fields to form new and expanded frameworks for addressing scientific and societal challenges and opportunities. It is related to other concepts used to identify research that spans disciplines: transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary. Convergent research is most closely linked to transdisciplinary research in its merging of distinct and diverse approaches into a unified whole to foster new paradigms or domains. Characterizations of convergence are presented in recent reports by the National Research Council  and MIT [1, 2], and a series of volumes on convergence edited by Mihail C. Roco and William S. Bainbridge [4, 5, 6, 7, 8].
Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond, National Research Council, 2014.
“Convergence is an approach to problems solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from life and health sciences, physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, engineering disciplines, and beyond to form a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields. By merging these diverse areas of expertise in a network of partnerships, convergence stimulates innovation from basic science discovery to translational application.”
Convergence: The Future of Health, Edited by P. Sharp, S. Hockfield, T. Jacks, MIT, 2016
“Convergence as applied to health is an approach to problem solving that integrates expertise from life sciences with physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, as well as engineering, to form comprehensive frameworks that merge areas of knowledge from multiple fields to address specific challenges. Convergence builds on fundamental progress made within individual disciplines AND cuts across disciplinary boundaries in these fields.”
“While Convergence and interdisciplinary research are closely allied, Convergence is different because it goes beyond collaboration: Convergence is the integration of historically distinct disciplines and technologies into a unified whole that creates fundamentally new opportunities for life science and medical practice.”
Convergence: Coherence and divergence of megatrends in science and engineering. Roco 2002
“Scientific discoveries and technological innovations evolve in coherence, with areas of confluence and temporary divergences, which bring synergism and that stimulate further developments following in average an exponential growth. The interplay between coherence and divergence, leading to unifying science and converging technologies, does not develop only among simultaneous scientific trends but also a long time and across geopolitical boundaries. Besides the societal needs of wealth, health, and peace, a key driver for discoveries is the intrinsic human need for intellectual advancement.”
The new world of discovery, invention, and innovation: convergence of knowledge, technology, and society, Roco and Bainbridge, 2013
“Convergence is a deep integration of knowledge, tools, and all relevant areas of human activity to allow society to answer new questions, to create new competencies and technologies, and overall to change the respective physical or social ecosystems. Such changes in the ecosystems open new trends, pathways, and opportunities in the following divergent phase of this evolutive process...Convergence is a transformation model in the evolution of science and technology (S&T) that unites S&T fields with society. It provides a framework and approach for advancing not only science and engineering but also business and policies.”
NSF identifies convergence with two primary characteristics:
- Deep integration across disciplines. As disciplines interact, the knowledge, theories, methods, data, research communities and languages are increasingly intermingled or integrated. On occasion, new disciplines form from sustained integration across disciplines. Through this deep integration, new frameworks and paradigms are created that enable new solutions. While it is not a specific objective of NSF’s efforts to promote convergence, new disciplines sometimes emerge from such sustained interactions across disciplines.
- Driven by a specific and compelling problem. Convergent research is generally inspired by the need to address a specific challenge or opportunity, whether it arises from deep scientific questions or pressing societal needs.
A convergence research project should bring together a team of scientists and engineers to create novel framings and solutions for research problems that leverage the diversity and expertise of collaborating disciplines and experts. The convergence paradigm augments a more traditional transdisciplinary approach to research by framing challenging research questions at inception, and fostering the collaborations needed for successful inquiry.
Also relevant is the observation that convergence is a process whose significance transcends the bounds of a single project :
“Convergence signifies a broad rethinking of how scientific research can be conducted in order to capitalize on a range of knowledge bases, from microbiology to computer science to engineering and design. In other words, the Convergence Revolution does not rest on a particular scientific advance but on a new integrated approach for achieving advances.”
- 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 P. Sharp, S. Hockfield, and T. 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) and DOC (Department of Commerce). 2002. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. Edited by M.C. Roco and W.S. Bainbridge, National Science Foundation. Publ. by: Kluwer Acad. Publ., currently Springer, Dordrecht, 2003. (available on: www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies//1/NBIC_report.pdf)
- Roco M.C. 2002. Coherence and divergence of megatrends in science and engineering. J Nanopart Res 4:9-19
- Roco M.C. and Bainbridge W.S. 2013. The new world of discovery, invention, and innovation: convergence of knowledge, technology, and society. J Nanopart Res 15:1946
- Roco, M.C. 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).
- Bainbridge, W.S. and Roco. M.C. 2016. Handbook of Science and Technology Convergence, Springer Reference, Berlin.