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Posted: Jul 30, 2008

The debate about converging technologies: Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research

Previous chapter: Nanoconvergence and Microsystems Technology
Some of the same challenges are encountered in the second policy option, particularly with regard to coordinating existing research funding programs that are strongly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary with a new convergence initiative. Here it also appears advisable for activities (a) for evaluating already completed or existing programs and (b) for promoting multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary work and transdisciplinary technology development from the perspective of convergence to be intensified, including at the EU level. Preparation of a more extensive CT initiative should, similar to strategies in Spain and Canada, include taking stock of the German R&D landscape, also by innovation-oriented inclusion of the social sciences and humanities in convergence processes in the natural sciences and technology (i.e., beyond the boundaries of traditional accompanying research on ethical, legal, and social aspects).  
One crucial prerequisite for sensible use of the convergence concept would probably be a further development which goes beyond the approaches found in the United States and some other CT initiatives that have to date often been superficial and rather rhetorical. One option is a convergence concept that is discipline- and technology-neutral, such as was in principle suggested at the EU level in the CTEKS Agenda. Such a concept would have the advantage that certain R&D areas would not be the focus from the outset and other possibly highly innovative and socioeconomically more relevant areas would not be neglected. Increased attempts should be made to create convergence hierarchies, whereby for instance »core sciences« such as chemistry and physics, broad R&D fields (e.g., biotechnology) and established new and emerging R&D areas that are strongly inter- and transdisciplinary should be distinguished and only thereafter would the manifold convergences be systematically analysed.  
Such an analysis could both serve as a guide for a reorganisation of the fields of support for research and offer an opportunity to distinguish between different types of convergence. Distinctions could be drawn between weak convergence, in which the results of research and development from other fields would only have the character of supporting results, convergence via inspiration, in the sense of conceptual or theoretical enrichment, and those strong forms of convergence in which new areas of research and development form with their own trajectories and in which knowledge or skills from multiple fields contribute directly to innovations. A guide could be funding for convergence that is problem oriented, objective, and pragmatic in which  
  • there is independence from all the flighty hype and a rigorous orientation on innovations;
  • the strategies for providing support – including with regard to the political structure given to research and development according to the area of application – are sufficiently flexible to take convergence processes into account as they arise and not to ask too much of individual projects by having far-reaching expectations regarding interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary aspects.
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    Here it would be possible to pick up from activities in the EU and of other actors regarding new and emerging areas of research and development, even though some of those activities have to be seen critically. Increased efforts at informing and including the public and science in its entire range (including disciplines outside the natural sciences) appear to be appropriate.
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