Grand Challenges

While there is no universally accepted definition of “Grand Challenges”, a general understanding is that Grand Challenges are ongoing, vexing problems for society. They have no clear current solution, but there is a consensus that they can be solved. An integral concept of Grand Challenges is that they require interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together different disciplines, various stakeholders, and participation from both the private and public sector.

In his recap and reflection of Tom Kalil’s* presentation on Grand Challenges (GCs), author David Pescovitz outlines Kalil’s five attributes of GCs:

  1. GCs have a major impact in global domains like health, energy, sustainability, etc.
  2. GCs are “ambitious but achievable”
  3. GCs should be compelling and capture the public’s imagination
  4. GCs should be specific and provide guidance for how to move forward, with measurable targets and deadlines for completion; however, they should not be so narrowly defined that they limit creativity and opportunity for innovation
  5. GCs recognize the potential of technology and science in finding solutions, thus driving innovation and advancement in these fields

Grand Challenges have been proposed by various international and domestic organizations, ranging from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to the Department of Energy (DOE) to European Academics Science Advisory Council (EASAC). The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has the Grand Challenges for Development initiative that seeks to “focus global attention and resources on specific, well defined international development problems, and promote innovative approaches, processes and solutions to solving them.” This initiative echoes Kalil’s sentiments of Grand Challenges that promote the importance of integrating technology and science into problem solving methods and the universally accepted notion to engage “non-traditional solvers” by seeking partnerships with and offering other involvement mechanisms to external individuals and groups.

As a student of International Development, it is interesting to see how USAID’s Grand Challenges for Development dictate work being done in this field. For example, I am currently supporting the USAID-funded project, “Saving Maternity Homes (SMH) in Ghana”. While it is not directly linked to the Grand Challenge of “Saving Lives at Birth”, I think the SMH project shows the pervasiveness and relevance of these grand challenges. By defining a Grand Challenge, these organizations, in this case USAID, outline what issues most demand attention and shape what projects are carried out by other organizations in the field.

Grand Challenges are becoming increasingly important as today’s issues continue to affect the global population and call for collaboration between actors on all levels. However, it is also vital to recognize that too many Grand Challenges could deter participation and lessen the likeliness of solutions. So long as organizations continue to work together to determine these challenges and seek solutions, Grand Challenges will be strong motivators for action and progress.

*Tom Kalil is the Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Senior Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council