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Studies of Convergence

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The concept of convergence is explored in a number of reports. The most systematic and extensive treatment of convergence has been carried out by Mihail Roco, William Bainbridge, and others in a series of publications over the past fifteen years [5-9]. These works characterize convergence as part of a convergence-divergence cycle that exists as a fundamental dynamic in the history of scientific and technological development. In this sense convergence is not a new phenomenon, but it is timely for its importance in meeting present and future challenges in an increasingly interacting and expanding word.

Convergence trends have been inherent in natural and human development since the formation of assemblies of atoms in the material world and the earliest group interactions in tribal life. What is new in the early decades of the twenty-first century is the increasing importance of convergence as a means of both comprehending and harnessing the fundamentally new and rapid scientific and technological advances of our time.” [8]

The 2002 report edited by Roco and Bainbridge, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science [4], is a seminal work in the literature on convergence. It describes convergent approaches in a broad set of themes, including expanding human cognition and communication; improving human health and physical capabilities; enhancing group and societal outcomes; national security; and unifying science and education.

The scope of 2002 study was further broadened in the 2013 book Convergence of Knowledge, Technology, and Society editedbyRoco, Bainbridge, Tonn, and Whitesides [7]. In this work convergence is formulated as a fundamental principle of progress, one that involves bringing together all relevant capabilities to enable society to answer its most important problems.

The 2004 report edited by Roco and Montemagno, The Co-evolution of Human Potential and Converging Technologies [6] concludes that “Human abilities in learning, working and active aging will intimately depend on the confluence of various technological, medical, cognitive, and social developments. The co-evolution of human potential and converging new technologies will be a trend with major implications for individuals, organizations, and society in the decades to come.”

Various approaches to implement and facilitate a more effective and more rapid process of convergence across scientific and technological domains have been reviewed in 2016 [10]. “These methods are based on applying five general principles of convergence: exploiting interdependence among domains, improving the convergence-divergence cycle, system-logic decision making and confluence of resources leading to ecosystem change, creating high-level and cross-domain languages to facilitate transfer of knowledge and new solutions; and using “vision-inspired” basic research for long term challenges.”

Phillip Sharp has been the leading exponent of convergence in the biomedical sciences. In 2011 the MIT Washington Office released The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering [1]. In this white paper convergence is described as the third revolution in biomedical research, following molecular/cellular biology and genomics.

Recently Sharp, Hockfield, and Jacks have edited a more comprehensive treatment of convergence in the biomedical sciences titled Convergence: The Future of Health [2].

Convergence: The Future of Health describes opportunities for convergent approaches in treating brain disorders, infection and immunity, and cancer. It also identifies convergent approaches and technologies in tools for imaging the body, nanotechnology for drug delivery in the body, regenerative engineering and medicine, and big data and health information technology.

The National Research Council published a series of reports between 2004 and 2014 [3, 11-17] on topics in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, the most recent being the 2014 study Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond [3]. This report contains a characterization of convergence in relation to other forms of research such as multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. It includes several examples of convergence in action, and is especially valuable for its analysis of other aspects of the convergence process: There is a section on revising STEM education to facilitate convergence, as well as a chapter on strategies that foster convergence in organizations.

Convergence in science and technology, and the realization of its maximum benefits for humanity, are neither simple nor automatic.  Often barriers retard progress, such as outdated conceptual systems, rigid organizations and educational programs.  Part of the solution are increased creativity and innovation by scientists and engineers in the interacting fields that are converging, collaboratively developing new analytical frameworks and empirical research methods using convergence principles for knowledge and productivity added-value, often achieved through well-designed but risky experimental projects.  Also essential are fundamental studies in the social and cognitive sciences, to understand the functions of current intellectual and professional frameworks, while exploring an ever-evolving set of alternatives to ensure continued progress. 

References

  1. MIT Washington Office. 2011. The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering
  2. MIT 2016. Convergence: The Future of Health. MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edited by Sharp, Hockfield, and Jacks
  3. NRC (National Research Council). 2014. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. 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)
  5. Roco M.C. 2002. Coherence and divergence of megatrends in science and engineering. J Nanopart Res 4:9-19
  6. Roco M.C. and C. Montemagno. 2004. “The Co-evolution of Human Potential and Converging Technologies”, Annals of the N.Y. Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1013, 2004.
  7. 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
  8. 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).
  9. W. S. Bainbridge and M. C. Roco 2016. Handbook of Science and Technology Convergence, Springer Reference, Berlin.
  10. Roco, M.C. 2016. Principles and Methods that Facilitate Convergence. Chapter in Handbook of Convergence in Science and Technology. Springer Reference Volume, pp. 17-42
  11. NAS, NAE, and IOM (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, 2004. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  12. NRC. 2005a. Mathematics and 21st Century Biology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  13. NRC. 2005b. Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  14. NRC. 2008. Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  15. NRC. 2009. A New Biology for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  16. NRC. 2010. Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  17. NRC. 2011. Toward Precision Medicine: Building a Knowledge Network for Biomedical Research and a New Taxonomy of Disease. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.