Op Ed / Essays
Convergence: The Future of Health
The integration of the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, and information technology—often referred to as Convergence—has emerged in recent years as a powerful approach to research with the potential to lead to medical and technological breakthroughs. As emphasized in the report, “Convergence: The future of health” (http://www.convergencerevolution.net/2016-report/), research funding is central to realizing the promise of Convergence.
As the new administration prepares to appoint its science leadership and to set research budgets, we urge them to recognize that science and technology are part of the infrastructure of the country. These fields are the source of both new jobs and the capacity to meet future challenges. Investing in the infrastructure of education and science is investing in the future economic health of the country.
Given that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fund the majority of the biomedical research performed in the United States, the new administration should request sustained increases to the NIH budget, with funding targeted for Convergence research specifically. Beyond the NIH, support for Convergence at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is critical to enhance the impact of nonbiomedical disciplines necessary to foster Convergence.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should coordinate partnerships across science agencies with relevant expertise. Convergence needs a coordinated strategic and funding plan across the science agencies to achieve its full potential to supply the innovations that will give physicians and patients the diagnostics, therapies, information, and tools to live healthier lives. The United States can be a leader in this research revolution, but only if we invest in it now.
Several federal agencies, including NIH, NSF, the Department of Defense (DOD), and DOE, are now involved in some aspect of Convergence research. However, the level of support is small, with only about 3% of NIH funding going to principal investigators in the physical sciences, engineering, or mathematics/statistics. Without greater inclusion of these perspectives, we will miss critical insights into health technologies and therapies of the future. The NSF has announced Convergence as one of its priorities, and we hope this will manifest as a substantial increase in funding. Numerous opportunities for greater collaboration exist between NIH and other agencies, such as DOE, DOD, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Agriculture, for expanding convergence to meet our pressing health care challenges.
Investing in Convergence, from early research through clinical applications, will transform health and provide health care cost savings. For example, Convergence can enhance early diagnosis. Catching problems at their outset can save on costly later-stage or last-minute treatment. Wearable smart devices that monitor health and wellness will alert patients and doctors to incipient health issues. Paired with advances in health information technologies that integrate molecular and genomic data, wearable monitors can help prevent disease progression. Meanwhile, algorithms to enable data-driven medical decision can help doctors use the best available evidence quickly.
Convergence can also increase the effectiveness of treatments. New immunotherapies and vaccines will enable our own bodies to better fight disease. Minimally invasive medical devices, including those that deploy nanotechnologies, will provide steady, regulated drug release, along with powerful tools for investigating subcellular processes. New regenerative and cell engineering strategies for tissue and organ repair will reduce the need for organ transplants and heal wounds faster. And new smart prosthetics, like robotic arms and hands, will connect to the nervous system, so wearers can sense the world and control their movements.
More broadly, Convergence can advance fundamental knowledge. New computational models of complex systems, advanced imaging at every scale (from subcellular processes to the whole body), and detailed characterization of protein, RNA, and DNA of single cells will expand our understanding of what makes us healthy or sick. And synthetic biology will permit the design of tomorrow’s health-enhancing microbes.
We urge the next administration to embrace the potential of Convergence to develop new therapies, advance science, and foster health innovations. It is the key to increasing the quality of healthcare at a sustainable cost. Let’s invest in our future, now.
These authors sign on behalf of over 100 scientists and leaders who participated directly in the report, “Convergence: The future of health” or who became aware of the Report and asked to sign. A full list of signatures can be found at http://www.convergencerevolution.net/blog/letter