Until the 1990s, most science and technology disciplines were fairly distinct, with only occasional overlap or multi-disciplinary projects. That separation also was the norm in education – a chemical engineer had little in common with a mechanical engineer, nor either with a biologist, botanist, nano-technologist, etc.
For the past two decades, however, there has been an increasing emphasis on multi-disciplinary education, even as that gives way to new trans-disciplinary approaches that create a convergence of previously separate disciplines.
“Just having expertise in multiple disciplines is not really transdisciplinary,” Dr. James J. Valdes, scientific advisor for BioTech at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, told Defense Media Network. “I use the term to talk about using knowledge from one discipline to fundamentally alter how you look at another discipline – using principles derived from nature to do material science, for example.”
Valdes is one of the Army’s key researchers into the future evolution and impact of transdisciplinary convergence, initially Nanotech-Biotech-Infotech-Cognitive (NBIC) convergence, which he says has become a metaphor for the broader concept. A key element in his effort has been the creation of a transdisciplinary convergence roadmap for the Army and others within government, industry and academia.
“We’re working from a military perspective to develop a strategic science roadmap,” he explains. “In the past, we have pursued a threat-based assessment – what is the threat, what do we know about the threat. If you do that, you’re always chasing the threat.
“Our application of NBIC convergence is really to take a science view of strategic roadmapping – what science is available, where is the science going, how and where we can apply the science we get in ways that make sense.”
The first draft was completed in 2010, but because technology moves so quickly, he says the roadmap will never be completed, serving instead as an ever-changing guide to help researchers reach their goals. It already is being looked at beyond the original needs of RDECOM to the broader concerns of the Joint Science and Technology Office, the chem-bio defense R&D component of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).
“We are now talking about, but have not yet been funded for, a roadmap for all JSTO,” Valdes says. “What we’ve done so far focused on physical sciences, not medical aspects, for example. So this would be a much broader, more encompassing roadmap to cover other applications.
“The desired end state is not just another mask for soldiers to wear or another detector; we want technology that will effectively negate chemical and biological agents. So we work with soldiers on what they do, how they do it and what they ideally need to accomplish that mission. Then we look at what science is needed to do those things, to develop the technology to achieve that desired end state. In some cases, the science exists; in others, it is new but visible over the horizon, while in others it does not exist and needs to be created from scratch.”
Valdes emphasizes the roadmap is not the same as previous efforts to predict future science, technology and threats, as was done in the Army’s 1992 STAR 21 (Strategic Technologies for the Army of the Twenty-First Century). In that study, basic and applied sciences were assessed and forecast as separate and discrete disciplines and the technologies of individual systems were not discussed with reference to the underlying sciences, he says.
An assessment of STAR 21 at the 15-year mark, in 2008, found about a quarter of the predictions were on target, some were overly optimistic, and others were too conservative, Valdes notes. But it was those things STAR 21 missed completely – the impact of the Internet and World Wide Web, the advent of international fiber optic links, the proliferation of personal computational devices, the spread of wireless technology and smartphones – that show the difficulty of predicting even 15 years ahead.
“Revolutions are difficult to predict; evolutionary changes are easier,” he says. “If you get people thinking realistically about the next 5 to 15 years, you’re more likely to be successful. Trying to go beyond that, people never get it right.”
Some roadmap expectations link back to the original concept of NBIC convergence – others, based on rapid, continuous advances and convergence in formerly separate technologies, may be beyond current understanding or prediction.
“There has been a convergence of infomatics and genomics in the past 10 years or so, for example, where now we are looking at whether we can build nano-scale structures from the ground up. Building artificial biological systems, you need to standardize the design and manufacture of the constructs that go into building various pathways. So you have a convergence of nano-science and metabolic engineering,” Valdes concludes.
“It is now becoming the norm to train students to be multi-disciplinary, so you have an engineering student who understands things like molecular biology. The whole idea of convergence is becoming the way business is done in science rather than a radical new idea, but predicting where convergences may happen is hard. It’s more often done in the rearview mirror, but you can create environments in which convergences are more likely to happen.”