For the forum at the National Academy of Engineering’s 2015 annual meeting, 7 of the 18 committee members who formulated the Grand Challenges for Engineering in 2008 reflected on what has happened in the seven years since. A common theme was surprise at how quickly and powerfully the idea has been embraced. “I personally had no idea, when I was part of this program, of the leverage it would have,” said Robert Socolow. Added Wesley Harris, “This has been an experience that, for me, has had spiritual content.”
This chapter presents an overview of the speakers’ remarks, and the second summarizes the wide-ranging exchanges afterward between the presenters and forum attendees.
In the national shock that followed the Soviet Union’s October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the old National Advisory Commission for Aeronautics, a modest organization, was expanded into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a major federal agency. Then came President John F. Kennedy’s vow in 1961 that “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Not that humanity would undertake this quest—that the United States would.
US decision making post-Sputnik was driven by “political, military, technological, and even scientific competition,” said Wesley Harris in his presentation. The Grand Challenges initiative must be different, he said. “It’s global in intent and global in its benefit. It is blind to economic, social, cultural, and religious differences. It thrives on a win-win
outcome at all levels. It requires, it demands, it rewards cooperation and collaboration.”
He envisioned the Grand Challenges as the branches of a “mighty tree with a great crown that provides shade and protection for all of humanity.” But the tree also has roots “related to the things that drive us: education, government, research, and, equally important, collaboration around the globe.” The Grand Challenges are “about humanity and our service to humanity within our profession.”
Harris proposed that engineers institutionalize the Grand Challenges in the US National Academy of Engineering while seeking support from the world’s governments and recognition of the project from the United Nations. Each section of NAE members could assess and apply the Grand Challenges in their area and report back to the NAE council, he suggested. More broadly, engineers could call attention to the ways in which the Grand Challenges bear on food delivery, transportation networks, communications, and the other essential elements of modern life.
He also pointed out that, with another billion people expected to join the human family in Africa by 2050, that continent offers intellectual resources that “we cannot afford to ignore, and that we can capture through these Grand Challenges.”
Robert Socolow observed that the 14 Grand Challenges fall into four categories. The first is sustainability—maintaining air and water quality, protecting freshwater quantity, preventing sea level rise, keeping forests and other ecosystems in good condition, and minimizing artificially triggered climate change. Next is personal and community health, because, he pointed out, “as individuals we can live fulfilling lives only if we are healthy.” But, he added, “people have a record of being dangerous to each other,” hence the third category, vulnerability and security.
The fourth category, joy of living, does not sound like a traditional engineering concern, Socolow admitted, but “electronics deliver us music with marvelous fidelity. Air travel brings us access to the extraordinary variety of human cultures and natural settings. Electronics nurtures our curiosity by providing incredible access to information. Engineering in many forms enables many discoveries about our universe and the history of life, which we then share.” Joy of living is not commonly found in an engineering course syllabus, Socolow said, but engineers should view it as part of their calling.
He then spoke about his specialty, environmental soundness. “Human beings are modifying the global carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels at a rate that leads to the atmospheric concentration increasing by half a percent a year, with consequences that are not well understood. Nitrogen fertilizer production has more than doubled the rate at which the triple bond of the N2 molecule is broken. For eons, nitrogen fixation had been occurring at a rate of about 100 million tons per year. Now it’s over 200 million. Will that matter?”
Socolow proposed a test for today’s generation of engineering students. “They will confront a new concept, unburnable fossil fuels. These are fossil fuels the next generation should decide to leave underground and not burn, in order to limit the amount of climate change. This will
entail very difficult questions. In which decades will the use of fossil fuels begin to be substantially curtailed? Will the poorest countries receive coal and oil preferentially for their development? Natural gas provides almost twice as much energy for the same amount of carbon emission, because more hydrogen comes out of the ground with each carbon atom compared to coal. So should natural gas be produced preferentially?” There is no consensus on the answers to these questions, but he predicted that “they are going to be front and center.”
Greater emphasis on environmental issues calls for a change in engineering education, Socolow suggested. “A significant fraction of engineering students need to learn about Earth, Earth system science, the atmosphere, the oceans, forests, ice,…” He pointed out that these subjects are typically considered environmental studies—“no one in the engineering cohort today is taking these courses, and professors are not advising engineering students to take them. So that is an action item…. Engineering cannot exist in a vacuum any longer.”
He also called for engineering professors to emphasize to their students that their profession must help the poorest. One billion people still depend on traditional biomass, which is harvested unsustainably. “Bundles of twigs for fuel are carried on people’s backs long distances,” Socolow said. “Cooking in tents and mud houses with unvented stoves is
the number one killer associated with global energy use, due to respiratory disease.”
He recalled that when he was a junior faculty member at Yale the university’s president, Kingman Brewster, made the distinction between puzzle solving and problem solving. “Many of us trained as scientists and engineers basically do puzzle solving, which means there is a well-defined answer and you know it when you get it.” Problem solving, he said, is more complex: it is multidisciplinary, has fuzzy edges, and has no single clearly defined solution. The sustainability of the Earth’s ecosystem, for example, requires problem solving. It has many aspects, of which climate change is just one, and will require “ambition, multidisciplinarity, and humility” to solve.
“Breakthroughs in small structures could help achieve several of the Grand Challenge goals,” said Jackie Ying. Nanomedicine can engineer better medical devices for early diagnosis of diseases, nanoporous materi-
als could provide access to clean water, nanocatalysts can help sequester greenhouse gases, and nanocomposites can contribute to green energy.
She described some of the work being done at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. For example, because of poor patient compliance when dealing with insulin delivery—patients do not want to prick their fingertips to test their blood sugar level and then inject insulin when the level is high—“we went about developing a system that is smart enough to sense when blood sugar level is high, deliver insulin, then stop delivering insulin when the blood sugar level had dropped to normal.” The key was a nanomaterial that involves a two-part glucose-sensitive polymer. When glucose in the bloodstream is high, crosslinking between the two substances stops, activating insulin delivery. The system can inject a single insulin dosage, which can last for one day, or up to a triple dosage, which can keep the patient’s levels normal for two days.
“Here is the part that is remarkable,” she explained. A self-injection of a triple dose would ordinarily cause a hypoglycemic episode. “But this material knows how to regulate delivery within the body. It can be taken orally or by nasal passage, so patient compliance is much higher and will allow you to regulate the blood glucose level very much like a normal pancreas.”
Basic development of the technology led to a spinoff company that drew the notice of the pharmaceutical industry, and Merck bought the spinoff firm for $500 million. “We hope that, in Merck’s hands, this nanomedicine will help us make a tremendous impact,” Ying said.
As another example of work at her institute, Ying cited a microfluidic device that can shorten disease diagnosis to a couple of hours rather than days. “The whole system is just a tiny plastic cartridge that is very inexpensive,” she said. “You can use it not only in hospitals but in clinics as well as checkpoints.” Such devices “will have a dramatic impact in how we contain the spread of infectious diseases.”
In addition, Ying observed that in her experience young people become excited when they realize that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are not just a matter of mastering material to earn good grades; rather, they are building blocks to have a positive impact on how people live. Her institute has a youth outreach program
that includes open houses, career talks, science camps, workshops, and internships. “We have already reached out to more than 88,000 students and teachers from many schools, from elementary school all the way to university.” And as the parent of a young daughter Ying said the Grand Challenges initiative “begs the question of what kind of world we want to leave our children to inherit.”
“I was one of the original 14 panel members who argued strongly that fusion should be included” in the Grand Challenges, said Alec Broers. “There has been, and remains, a lot of skepticism about this technology. After all, it has been worked on for more than 60 years and has yet to reach the point that fission reached in 1942 at the University of Chicago, when the control rods were pulled out of the first fission pile and it went critical, providing net power gain.”
But even considering only plasma fusion and not inertial confinement or low-temperature fusion, progress has been occurring on several fronts, Broers observed. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in the south of France is building a doughnut-shaped reactor the size of the Arc de Triomphe with the aim of producing half a megawatt of net output by the late 2020s. A few months before the forum, the contract was placed to deliver the superconducting wires that will compress the plasma to reach a temperature ten times that of the sun.
At the UK Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and at Princeton University, a new geometry is being explored for the fusion chamber. Instead of a torus or doughnut, as in past designs, the reactor chamber is spherical, more like a cored apple with a single conductor down the middle that carries the current from C-shaped coils. This geometry has been shown to be three times more effective in harnessing the magnetic field, which may make reactors smaller than ITER feasible, said Broers.
Finally, a small company called Tokamak Energy has spun out of Culham and is attempting to use high-temperature superconducting tapes and a spherical reactor to reach the goal of net energy output in the next five or ten years—ahead of ITER. “The experts think this aim is overoptimistic, but who knows?” Broers said.
He went on to observe that engineering systems have become so complex that no single person can know everything that is happening—and “in such an environment, it’s easy for ethics to get lost.” He cited apparent breakdowns of ethical behavior in the automobile industry. “If there was a formal code of ethics for engineers—perhaps modeled on the codes of the medical profession—such breakdowns might be less likely.”
He also pointed to the importance of the social sciences in understanding the implications of technologies. He lamented the fact that an organization akin to Alcoholics Anonymous is needed to wean people off too much use of the Internet. When designing the Web, engineers seem never to have considered that it could become an addiction, which may itself be another indication that a code of ethics would be a beneficial addition to engineering practice.
Calestous Juma said that the Grand Challenges structure was unusual in that “I have rarely served on a committee where the priorities are not set on the basis of the intellectual interests of the members. No member of the committee was advocating his or her own area of interest. All focused on the big global problems.” In this way, the Grand Challenges “demystified engineering from being viewed by the general public as a discipline to being perceived as a way of meeting human needs and solving global problems.”
He recounted his experience talking about the report at a high school in Connecticut that has a preengineering program. He challenged the students to work for a week on one of the challenges. They came up with a design for a wind power system made of tethered parachutes—an approach that closely paralleled that of a technical report from the Netherlands that Juma read several months later. “If you give these ideas to people without making them feel that you are pushing a particular field on them,…you get remarkable enthusiasm.”
He also cited a competition, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, established by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. “The
criteria for the prize looked very much like the elements of the Grand Challenges, but we didn’t call it Grand Challenges.” The proposals submitted for the competition mirrored the NAE Grand Challenges, he said, and came from all over the continent. Even the least developed countries in Africa “have ideas,” said Juma. “These are people who are using existing knowledge and expertise to solve global problems.”
He reported that the number of African countries with academies of science has grown from 10 to 17 just since the Grand Challenges were released. “They are relatively young, which means they are exploring new things to do. I see that as a real opportunity for this academy to engage with those academies.”
One way for educational institutions to rise to the challenge, Juma proposed, is to reimagine themselves as centers of problem solving. Today, liberal arts education focuses on abstract knowledge, while trade schools prepare students for specific jobs that already exist. What if high school students instead spent a full year on one of the Grand Challenges? “This could make schools more relevant for problem solving and meeting human needs,” Juma said.
Farouk El-Baz offered an example of the kinds of large problems that engineering can solve. When images from various kinds of satellites became widely available in the 1970s, “we began to look at pictures of the Earth from space,” he said. “What is it that we can see in these pictures, and how do we interpret them?”
In 1974 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who wanted to more widely disperse people away from the Nile River, asked El-Baz to come to Egypt and help him with his vision of agriculture in the desert west of the river. Initial exploration and drilling for water in the desert had been largely fruitless because of difficulties interpreting geological features. Thanks to a newly designed radar imager that gave a view of the terrain beneath the desert sands,
“we began to see the passageways of former rivers in desert areas,” El-Baz said. This technique (invented by a member of the US National Academy of Engineering) has been used to locate groundwater in Egypt, Chad, India, China, and elsewhere. A technological advance made it possible to look at an age-old problem “with a whole new vision.”
El-Baz said he is regularly impressed that young people view technology as a good way to address society’s problems, such as access to clean water. “I would like to see us concentrate our attention on trying to get young people worldwide interested in [the Grand] Challenges…. They are a lot more enthusiastic about it and a lot more open-minded about how to approach this kind of topic and find solutions to these kinds of problems.” For example, he suggested commissioning a series of children’s books on each of the Grand Challenges to get even young children engaged with 21st century issues. The Internet, too, is a way of putting the Grand Challenges in the hands of young people, he added, and academies of science, engineering, and medicine around the world can help spread the word.
For keeping the world running, engineers deserve an A, said Dean Kamen. “For reaching out to the next generation, we should get a C, or
maybe a D.” He chided his fellow engineers with a comparison of the worlds of engineering, entertainment, and athletics. “When sports teams play their championships, when the superstars of athletics get together, they don’t play the Super Bowl or the World Cup privately and the only people in the stands are other athletes,” he said. Yet “that’s what we do” in science and engineering. “We talk to ourselves…. Then we wonder why there aren’t enough kids to solve these 14 problems that we know about—and the ones that we don’t know about that will probably be in their heads in 50 years.”
Early in his career, Kamen decided that the worlds of sports and entertainment do a much better job of reaching out to young people than does engineering, so he decided to adopt their techniques. The FIRST Robotics program now has teams from 83 countries and 182 universities with 3,500 corporate sponsors—yet still not enough people know about it. So when will.i.am was the halftime entertainer at the Super Bowl in 2011, Kamen called and asked him to make a video that would make science and engineering cool. The singer responded, “Dean, I can’t make technology cool to kids—you guys have already done that. But I can make it loud.” The resulting video was loud, Kamen said, which was a deliberate choice: To compete with entertainment and sports for young people’s attention, engineering needs to be flashy. The
following year, Kamen presented will.i.am with the inaugural Make It Loud Award.
Kamen went on to observe that in many parts of the world, politics tends to be a divisive force. Technology, in contrast, can be a unifying force, he said, especially among young people who see science and engineering as the path out of problems. That is one reason why he thinks of the FIRST Robotics program as a collaboration rather than a competition. “Rational intelligent people who appreciate the power of technology will, in a sense, displace the nonsense of political self-inflicted wounds.”
This observation drew a comment from moderator Dan Vergano, who urged the engineering community to become more open to the public. “Scientists love to talk about their research,” he said. “With engineers, as soon as conversation gets interesting, you shut up, saying the details are proprietary. It’s only when something does not work that an engineer is free to discuss it.” This is one reason, Vergano pointed out, why journalists have a harder time covering engineering than science.