Expert Report

Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond (2014)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

New biofuels, 3-D printing of human tissues, and more precise drug delivery systems are just a few examples of innovations that combine insights and approaches from the life and health sciences with those from the physical, mathematical, and computational sciences and engineering. This report focuses on the need for “convergence”—an approach to problem solving that integrates the knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from multiple disciplines, including economic, social, and behavioral sciences. By merging these diverse areas of expertise in a network of partnerships, convergence stimulates innovation from basic science discovery to translational application. Convergent research could lead to many more breakthroughs that improve lives and strengthen the economy, but cultural and institutional barriers hamper its development. This report examines lessons learned from successful approaches for fostering convergence in different types of research institutions. The report calls for sustained national coordination to build the infrastructure needed to solve problems that transcend traditional boundaries. Read this Report in Brief to learn more about the report, and watch this video to learn more about convergence.

Key Messages

  • Strategies and practices used by institutions to facilitate convergence include:
    • Organizing around a common theme, problem, or scientific challenge;
    • Implementing management structures tailored to the challenges to convergence in each institution;
    • Fostering opportunities to interact formally and informally;
    • Changing existing faculty structures and reward systems;
    • Working with and across existing departments;
    • Embedding support for convergence in the promotion and tenure process;
    • Designing facilities and workspaces for convergent research;
    • Designing education and training programs that foster convergence;
    • Establishing partnership arrangements across institutions; and
    • Exploring sources of funding within and beyond government agencies
  • Essential cultural and structural elements in successful convergence ecosystems are:
    • People: Leadership committed to supporting convergence, and the involvement of students, faculty members and staff, department chairs, and deans at multiple institutional levels.
    • Organization: Inclusive governance systems, a goal-oriented vision, effective program management, stable support for core facilities, and flexible or catalytic funding sources.
    • Culture: Inclusive, supports mutual respect across disciplines, encourages opportunities to share knowledge, and fosters scientists’ ability to be conversant across disciplines.
    • Ecosystem: Dynamic interactions with multiple partners within and across institutions.
  • Experts, funding agencies, foundations, and other partners should identify key problems whose solution requires convergence approaches in order to catalyze new research directions and guide research priorities.
  • Research institutions, funding agencies, foundations, and other partners should address barriers to effective convergence as they arise, including expanding mechanisms for funding convergence efforts and supporting collaborative proposal review across funding partners. Institutional programs such as seed funding to catalyze collaborations should be implemented or expanded.
  • Institutions should review their administrative structures, faculty recruitment and promotion practices, cost recovery models, and research support policies to identify and reduce roadblocks to the formation of inter- and intra- institutional patnerships that facilitate convergence.
  • Academic institutions should develop hiring and promotion policies that include exlicit guidelines to recognize the importance of both convergent and disciplinary scholarship, and include criteria to fairly evaluate them.
  • Those interested in fostering convergence should identify evidence-based practices that have facilitated convergence by drawing on the expertise of economic, social, and behavioral sciences, as well as program management and strategic planning. Understanding the barriers and strategies to practicing convergence would improve practical guidance on how institutions can structure and sustain a convergence program.
  • Leaders and practitioners who have fostered a convergence culture in their organizations and laboratories should develop partnerships, synergies, and collaborations with their colleagues in other organizations--especially in small universities and institutions that serve traditionally underrepresented groups--to help these partnering institutions establish and nurture convergence efforts while furthering the interests of their own.
  • Best practices on the effective transfer of technologies from research organizations into the private sector should be collected, established, and disseminated. For convergent approaches to enable innovation and stimulate future economic development, research advances need to be translated into new products and services.