A doctor, an engineer, a biologist and a computer scientist sitting around a table may sound like the opening line of an overworked joke. In fact, it offers an important solution to Canada’s growing health-care needs — but only if we radically change how we train and fund researchers to support this convergence.
As our population ages, the need for innovative treatments and technologies grows more urgent. Last year, for the first time in our history, Canada had more senior citizens than children, a demographic trend that is projected to intensify over the next decade. With life expectancy continuing to increase, more Canadians will develop degenerative conditions — cancer, heart and musculoskeletal disease, stroke, diabetes and blindness, for example — that will stretch our publicly funded health care system and our society.
The complexity of these conditions means game-changing breakthroughs are unlikely to emerge if researchers work exclusively within their own fields. Instead, we need to bring together experts from diverse disciplines, including life and physical sciences, mathematics, engineering and medicine, to collaborate on urgent research problems. As a 2015 Nature editorial argued, working across disciplines drives researchers “to ask questions and solve problems that have never come up before,” but “can also address old problems, especially those that have proved unwilling to yield to conventional approaches.” Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have taken the concept of interdisciplinary research a step further by arguing that convergence — “the integration of historically distinct disciplines and technologies into a unified whole that creates new pathways and opportunities” — offers “potentially revolutionary change for biomedical sciences.”
In Canada, biomedical engineering has been at the forefront of the shift toward convergence. The Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, founded in 1987 by Nobel laureate Michael Smith, was among the first research entities in the world to integrate health, physical, engineering and computational sciences. At the University of Toronto, the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering brings together researchers from the faculties of engineering, medicine and dentistry to solve pressing health care challenges. Recent advances include new methods for growing human tissues outside the body to improve pharmaceutical testing and lessen our reliance on animal models, therapies for cancer based on engineered tumour-killing white blood cells, and the further development of materials that guide bone and muscle repair.
The deck remains stacked against convergence. We need researchers who can work fluently at the intersection of life sciences, computer programming, mathematics and engineering.
But the deck remains stacked against convergence. We need researchers who can work fluently at the intersection of life sciences, computer programming, mathematics and engineering. Yet few university programs integrate the teaching of these disciplines, or prepare graduate students to work effectively with colleagues from other fields who approach problems in different ways. Faculty hiring decisions, too, largely follow disciplinary lines. And administrative silos within and between institutions can create obstacles to bringing the best expertise to bear on critical research questions.
Our research funding structure also reinforces discipline-specific silos, with separate federal agencies funding science and engineering and health research. There is no doubt that interdisciplinary work requires strong discipline-based support, but this funding division can hobble projects that straddle multiple fields, such as health-related engineering, where much of the innovative work is occurring today. This challenge is not just a Canadian one: a 2016 study by Lindell Bromham, Russell Dinnage and Xia Hua in the journal Nature showed the more interdisciplinary the research proposal, the lower its chances of receiving funding.
The federal government has taken some positive steps to support convergence, notably through the Collaborative Health Research Projects and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, both multi-agency initiatives that fund interdisciplinary research. The latter supports Medicine by Design, a convergent program at the University of Toronto that brings together more than 90 researchers from across the university and its affiliated hospitals in collaborative teams to advance the frontiers of regenerative medicine and stem cell research.
It’s a good start. But as the National Research Council of the US National Academies argued in a 2014 book Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond, we need to create policies, structures and networks to support convergent research if we are to realize its full potential. That will require breaking down silos between disciplines and institutions to teach life sciences, computer programming, mathematics and engineering in a more integrated way, and creating new funding mechanisms and other resources to support the most creative and novel research proposals, unhindered by traditional boundaries. It will require all stakeholders to recognize that convergence research can take more time and investment at the outset as diverse teams build relationships and learn how to work together effectively.
As the global discussion about fostering convergence continues, the panel appointed by federal science minister Kirsty Duncan to review funding for fundamental science has a key opportunity to recommend strategies that could make Canada a leader in this emerging field. Seizing this moment now will benefit patients, our health-care system and our global competitiveness for years to come.
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