NEREID launches new “On Tap!” series to explore earth-space convergence

What is the essence of convergence science, and how is it conceptually distinct from what we think of as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity? These are questions that NEREID has been pondering since its inaugural 2019 workshop at Green Bank Observatory.

And what better way to open up discussion and get to the bottom of complex issues than happy hour with a large group of friends and colleagues in a “virtual pub”?

The first in a new series of “NEREID: Convergence On Tap!” events was held on May 31 to probe the opportunities, challenges and issues surrounding the practice of convergence. The series launch focused on the topic “Interdisciplinarity and Convergence Science: What do we mean?”, with a panel discussion, followed by breakout sessions and open conversation.

Expert panelists included: Inna Kouper, Research Scientist at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University; Ryan McGranaghan, Principal Data Scientist and Aerospace Engineering Scientist at ASTRA Associates; and Attila Varga, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University. Catherine Cramer, Director of Woods Hole Institute, served as moderator.

The three panelists presented diverse but complementary views. “Convergence has always been present in the sciences”, said Varga, referring to historical “mixing between disciplines”, exemplified by convergent disciplines such as “molecular biology, ecology, [and] biophysics”.

Taking a systematic point of view, Kouper highlighted her own research findings about practices commonly found in interdisciplinary contexts including “theory borrowing” from other disciplines; “shared use” of emerging technologies; “stakeholder collaborations” that blur the division between researcher and layperson through participatory frameworks; and the “expanding range of expertise” needed to work with data.

Noting a key issue for convergence, Kouper cautioned, “We still try to work on interdisciplinarity as fitting multiple pieces together, but our systems are designed to keep them separate, and they don’t fit”.

McGranaghan followed up by introducing the notion of “antidisciplinarity” as a form of “radical convergence”. Antidisciplinarity “doesn’t mean against disciplines, but it really means the space between disciplines”, said McGranaghan. “I think that’s where the most interesting, fruitful and exciting conversations happen”.

When asked to expand, McGranaghan explained that radical convergence is “this need to somehow become comfortable with uncertainty, and start to have conversations that you don’t immediately understand and start to talk with people whose language you don’t immediately understand”.

However, all three panelists agreed that systems and scholarly incentives for scientists are not currently designed to support radical convergence, resulting in knowledge that is not easily shared.

Building on this conundrum and the perspectives expressed by the panelists, breakout groups were asked to imagine a scenario – the impending approach of a “planet-killer” comet - and consider solutions that would be enabled through convergence of data, disciplines, tools, methods and ways of thinking. Groups were given slightly different scenarios – 9 years, 9 months or 9 days until impact – before spending the next 30 minutes brainstorming about how to save Earth. Unsurprisingly, the thought exercise prompted lively conversation when the whole group reconvened to share ideas, leading swiftly to discussion of other pertinent global issues such as COVID-19 and public trust in scientific information.

In the end, the evening concluded just as it would have in a real pub: with folks trickling out the door as the hour drew late, others lingering behind to keep a stimulating conversation going, and more questions left hanging in the air than there were at the beginning.

Be sure to join NEREID for future On Tap! sessions as we continue exploring the essence of convergence together!