Building momentum for convergent science

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has long been a leader in innovative thinking that addresses broad challenges. That leadership was on display recently when faculty member Joseph DeSimone led a National Research Council committee of top scientists to explore the nation’s standing on convergent research, a new approach to help more quickly solve global issues like creating new fuels, securing food supplies and curing disease.

In a report released this month, the NRC committee concluded that better national coordination of convergence is needed to move beyond the current patchwork of efforts across universities and industry and capture the momentum generated in recent years. Both DeSimone and Chancellor Carol L. Folt participated in a September 2013 workshop at the National Academy of Sciences, which led to the committee’s work on the report.

The committee, called “Key Challenge Areas for Convergence and Health,” was chaired by DeSimone, Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences and the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at N.C. State University and of Chemistry at UNC.

Convergence brings together knowledge and tools from life sciences, physical sciences, medicine, engineering and beyond to stimulate innovative research, and represents a cultural shift for academic organizations that have been traditionally organized around discipline-based departments. Better national coordination would provide a stronger framework of shared goals among national vision-setting bodies, funders, academic leaders, government laboratories and industry, and medical and regulatory stakeholders, and would enable the United States to better harness the power of convergence to yield new knowledge and stimulate innovation.

Carolina has been a leading force in this new intersectional push, having built the Genome Sciences Building in 2012 and Marsico Hall in 2014. Both aim to create new synergy and pull together tools, knowledge and ways of thinking among the medical school, the five health affairs schools and centers and institutes across campus in ways that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

The study’s sponsors included the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science of North Carolina State University.

May 23, 2014.