Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World

The previous LOTRW post noted a new, and welcome, Sigma Xi initiative. From the Sigma Xi website:

The Scientific Research Honor Society announces plans to hold the first International Forum on Research Excellence (IFoRE) November 3–6, 2022. The four-day conference will welcome scientists, engineers, students, artists, and supporters of science worldwide to participate in discussions and demonstrations of excellence in the research enterprise. Attendees will be invited to present, connect, and collaborate on diverse ideas through symposia, panels, workshops, and networking sessions. The hybrid event will be held in-person in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as online.

The theme for IFoRE ’22 is “Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World.”
[Emphasis added.] Attendees will take part in a variety of multi-track sessions that explore the strength of scientific research when diverse minds converge as well as ideas that conquer the challenges of increasing equity and inclusion in the research community.

Science convergence (alternatively convergence research) is certainly a popular notion these days. The National Science Foundation has been one of the leaders in this charge. They provide this description: Convergence research is a means of solving vexing research problems, in particular, complex problems focusing on societal needs. It entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation.

Similarly, the current world attention to diversity and inclusion is also badly-needed and long overdue – and not just in the research community.

All this prompts a few initial thoughts:

On convergence. To draw from my own background, most geoscientists and Earth scientists are keenly aware that their work has always been multidisciplinary. To paraphrase the country singer Barbara Mandrell (with apologies): “geosciences were convergent when convergence wasn’t cool.” Taking meteorology as an example: the question what makes weather? has long been wedded to the forecast problem what will the weather do next? Improving the answer to both has required drawing from a mishmash of disciplines – mathematics, physics, chemistry, even a bit of biology (as for example, in examining the role of plant transpiration in moisture supply to the atmosphere over land surfaces). And all that is before we come to the questions of what makes the weather matter? and how might we better capture its opportunities and protect ourselves from its threats? These bring in the social sciences and more. The progress of meteorology has been tied less to the notion of convergence as an ideal than it has to the quick-and-dirty application of whatever scientific disciplines have been found to be useful or needed. These have all been incorporated into meteorology well before the idea of convergence became a thing. (Parenthetically, meteorologists have given priority to the problem to be solved at some expense of their reputation and standing among the pantheon of science disciplines. Good for meteorologists.)

That means that meteorology and other geosciences (and other fields, such as medicine or social science) might be viewed as more akin to engineering than to science. That’s reflected in the reality that meteorologists, hydrologists, et al., are more fully populated in the National Academy of Engineering than in the National Academy of Sciences. Convergence is a means to an end as well as an end in itself, as implied by the NSF text above. A challenge for Sigma Xi is to address and balance both.

On inclusion and diversity. Like convergence itself, these ideals are both a means to an end and a desirable end in themselves. The hopes and aspirations of eight billion people can be realized only to the extent that all share equitably in (1) opportunity to contribute to the progress of science and innovation, and (2) access to, and benefit from the results of that progress. Sigma Xi is right to give this emphasis.

As a step in this direction, what is Sigma Xi planning, or how might it plan to engage other scientific and professional societies in its initial and multi-year IFoRE efforts? And are those other societies (thinking personally of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union that have played so great a role in my own career as examples) taking corresponding steps to contribute? (Addressing my own community here) If not, we should be. Being intentional and strategic about such engagement now could greatly enrich and accelerate IFoRE impact.

On bench-level scientists as participants versus spectators. A reexamination of what makes research “excellent” in light of urgent societal needs as well as the progress of disciplines per se is certainly called for. Periodically hearing from a handful of high-profile speakers at annual conferences – giving their reflections a wider platform – will ennoble us all. But social scientists (and our parents) remind us we learn best by doing. That suggests explicit attention to a second question that could be raised in every science sphere, at multiple levels (individual, institutional, programmatic; local as well as national and global): how can this particular bit of science in this discipline or area of application or local place be made “more excellent?”

Such incremental improvement at the margins is the quotidian stuff of journal peer review, of exchange at professional meetings, of laboratory program reviews – an already (if imperfectly) diverse and inclusive set of activities across the sciences. These have as their aim more-excellent science and they are well underway. They have their established traditions shaped by trial-and-error experience. It’s part of the basic hygiene of science.

That said, it could all stand some improvement. Attention to ways and means to enhance these processes should accompany focus on the bigger picture. And it’s a path to fostering the desired diversity and inclusion, especially the inclusion of early-career scientists.

At such local levels, seeking to make science “more excellent” at the margins, and doing what scientists do best – experimenting, accompanied by early detection of success and failure, and sharing of those findings in both Sigma Xi and other science and professional societies? That would surely make for a better world – at the rapid pace matching the urgent needs emerging across today’s world. That, and nothing less, is what’s at stake with IFoRE.

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3 Responses to Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World

  1. jimmy correia says:

    Excellent points. Convergence needs anchor scientists.
    At least here in the weather world, project based funding has narrowed the collaborations. Now we try to force convergence with added constraints. Scientists need funding more than ever, and limited dollars per project, means limited scientists per project, which limits the opportunity for convergence. Or at the least limits convergence to a few scientists, and puts pressure on agencies to forge new connections through giant Institutes… but why?
    Staff scientists, those who in previous times, that could be convergent were missing. So now these institutes have been formed, like AI2ES. The institutes will produce vast amounts of science, and already are. And it will swamp some of the capabilities of existing federal personnel. But the transitions, as all tech transitions are, will be slower than the lifetime of the Institute. To keep pace, to keep converging, also means budgeting for impact, budgeting for balance, and budgeting for acceptance, and anticipating an ever increasing pace of innovation. And you need an agile, adaptable, and fast response people who arent overtasked on projects, project plans and milestones.
    Thanks for reading this far.

  2. Kevin Kniffin says:

    Thanks for your post — it’s great to see more attention paid to “convergence” research and the (early-career) researchers who undertake such work. Likewise, it’s very relevant to note that some areas are, by nature, more “convergent” or “interdisciplinary” than others. _Just in case_ it’s helpful for discussion, I can point to a working paper that suggests that (in a majority of cases) the people who undertake convergent/interdisciplinary research as a doctoral student tend to face penalties relative to doctoral students undertaking monodisciplinary research:
    Any thoughts, … on the working paper are certainly welcome as it continues to be developed for journal publication. Thanks very much.

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