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See Inside July 2011

Big Buzzword on Campus: Is "Convergence" a Revolution in Science or Simply Jargon?




Courtesy of Michael Moran

Research universities have been abuzz with what some are calling the “next big thing”: convergence, the integration of the life, engineering and physical sciences. This wholesale merging of minds is being billed as critical to helping researchers answer the most profound questions: How does the brain work? What causes cancer? How can we make energy more sustainable? “The convergence revolution is a paradigm shift,” write the authors of a recent white paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Convergence means a broad rethinking of how all scientific research can be conducted.”

Researchers can be forgiven for thinking they have heard this all before. The concept of merging tools and methods from separate disciplines is not new; the x-ray’s arrival in 1895 brought physics to the doctor’s office. More recently, the Human Genome Project spawned integrated fields such as bioinformatics and systems biology. But Phillip A. Sharp, a biology professor at M.I.T. and co-author of the white paper, argues that the true multidisciplinary nature of convergence marks a “third revolution” in science that is following in the footsteps of the molecular biology revolution of the 1950s and the genomics revolution that began in the late 1980s.

If something revolutionary is again afoot, it has only recently begun reaching critical mass, with more universities opening facilities and revamping hiring practices to foster cross-disciplinary research. Earlier this year New York University cut the ribbon on its Biomedical Chemistry Institute, with laboratories shared by chemists and biomedical researchers collaborating on new antibiotics, malaria drugs and cancer diagnostics. M.I.T.’s new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research mixes biology and engineering labs and features common spaces designed to promote interaction. Columbia University’s recently opened Northwest Corner Building brings together engineers, physicists, chemists and biologists in open-format labs and a common dining hall and library. Other universities have started recruiting across disciplines. Michigan Technological University has experimented with hiring faculty by research theme—such as energy—rather than by department. And last October the University of Iowa announced 14 new tenure-track positions as part of a multidisciplinary hiring initiative centered on “the aging mind and brain.”

So is convergence a revolution or simply a matter of scientific evolution? It may be hard to tell until it yields its own version of the double helix or the human genome.

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