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Bridges between disciplines

Specialists advocate technological convergence, a strategy that brings various areas together within cutting edge fields

The four areas of the NBIC, the greatest current expression of convergence

Mihail Roco, an engineer of Italian origin who was born in Romania and is one of the greatest authorities on nanotechnology in the United States, was in São Paulo in November to encourage Brazilian researchers to work with colleagues from other areas on ambitious large-scale projects, that have a high scientific, economic and social impact. This multidisciplinary work approach, which is nowadays known as technological convergence, is the subject of much discussion in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan and is becoming increasingly popular in Brazil.

In 2008, Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and Advisor for the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Management and Strategic Studies Center (CGEE), gave a warning: “If Brazil does not get involved in the debate regarding technological convergences it runs the risk of seeing the developed countries deciding for us” (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 136).

“People are unable to reorganize themselves from one day to the next,” stated Roco, who is an advisor on nanotechnology for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is the main US federal research financing agency, with an annual budget of close to U$ 7 billion. According to Roco, even in the United States it is not at all easy to persuade a scientist to give any serious consideration to what a colleague in another area is doing.

“One of my tasks is to get scientists out of the inertia that they live in and show them that they can gain a lot from working with specialists from other areas,” he commented. “The specialties are necessary, but we don’t have to spend our entire time on them. We can integrate our areas and start to look once again at science as a single thing.” Since he first began working in this area at the NSF 10 years ago, Roco has managed to get a six-fold increase in federal investments in nanotechnology in the United States, which rose to US$ 1.5 billion in 2007.

According to Roco, technological convergence implies starting to work on problems that need to be resolved, not on the disciplines involved. It also implies looking for common objectives, sharing theories and work focuses, valuing people’s abilities and results and anticipating and managing opportunities and risks. In summary, as he put it, “using the whole brain, rather than just part of it.” In order to get underway this work strategy also requires changes in the way that universities, research centers, companies and government bodies are run, so as to value “a long-term view that is transformative, as well as being collaborative and visionary.”

The United States is betting on this multidisciplinary work strategy – in particular in the area known as NBIC, which combines nanotechnology, biology, IT and the cognitive sciences – to maintain its global scientific leadership position. If the obstacles can be overcome, maybe the researchers will indeed succeed, as they hope to, in coming up with therapies against cancer or an artificial retina, among other products, as a result of joint efforts between doctors, engineers, physicists and computer scientists.

The idea is to make products such as bone implants, which 10 years ago were rare, and alcohol fuel, which has been produced in Brazil for more than 30 years now, increasingly common. The development of products such as these shows that specialists from areas that are often very different can understand each other and transform good ideas into products that are capable of changing people’s lives as well as social relationships.

“In recent decades there have been two biomedical revolutions, molecular biology and genomics,” said Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States, in an article which was published in July in Science magazine. “It is our opinion that the convergence of different fields represents a third revolution, where multidisciplinary thought and analysis will allow the emergence of new scientific principles to emerge in which engineers and physicists are partners on an equal footing with biologists and doctors while they deal with the new medical challenges.”

Sharp, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993, is also the first author of a 40-page document from MIT that was distributed in January 2011 with the definitions and prospects of technological convergence, which is now viewed as an approach that could bring advances in sectors such as health, energy, agriculture and the climate.

Comfort Zone
And in Brazil, what are the odds that technological convergence will move forward? Theoretically, they are high, in the view of Lélio Fellows Filho, who is an advisor at the CGEE. His first point is that technological convergence, which he defines as “a new way of looking at problems and approaching solutions,” is promising because “we need to take great leaps, not just walk,” in order to resolve the country’s problems.

In addition to this, he verified that 1,309 research groups out of the 35 thousand registered in the country are already in the NBIC (220 groups in nanotechnology, 791 in biotechnology, 278 in IT and 120 in cognitive sciences). Out of the 134 Brazilian science and technology institutes (INCTs), 55 make up “the universe that can be mobilized for converging actions,” he commented.

Fellows knows that it will not be easy to motivate the main representatives of this universe to work together on common problems or those that demand complex solutions. “We need to reduce the distrust and the distances between areas of knowledge of different practices, customs and systems of ideas,” he proposes. “We also need to overcome the inertia of the areas of knowledge and encourage researchers to leave their comfort zones and get involved in risky, ground-breaking initiatives.”