Grand Challenges

            A Grand Challenge is a complex, ambiguous term that embodies the objectives of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. While Tom Khalil of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy claims that there is no definition for what constitutes as a Grand Challenge, he provides some guidance for specific characteristics of Grand Challenges (Pescovitz, 2012).

The criteria he provides can be broken down as follows:

  • Grand Challenges ultimately impact a major domain of society such as health, education, or security
  • Grand Challenges are ambitious but achievable
  • Grand Challenges are compelling and intrinsically motivating
  • Grand Challenges have a Goldilocks level of focus; they are not too vague, but also not overly defined
  •  Grand Challenges harness innovation and creativity (Pescovitz, 2012).

            The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) act as “a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment” (UNPD, 2018). The SDGs meet all the requirements set out by Tom Khalil, which can be further evaluated.

            First, the SDGs impact multiple major domains of society from education to environmental protection. Next, the SDGs are ambitious, but achievable. Each SDGs has a variety of targets and indicators that help quantify the progress of the goal. The indicators and targets are achievable since they have can be mathematically measured, yet they are ambitious due to their global reach. The SDGs are also a set of compelling goals, though much of the public is not aware of the specifics are the goals, the broader concepts are issues that a majority of the population would support. Additionally, the SDGs have the Goldilocks level of focus. While the aim of the goals collectively is comprehensive, the individual goals provide sufficient focus and specificity. Last, the SDGs call for a high level of ingenuity since previous methods of tackling these have not been as successful as hoped, there is a need to find alternative solutions.

            Furthermore, the SDGs are a perfect example of a Grand Challenge as they require a collective effort to conquer. The collective effort required involves a variety of disciplines to come together, all doing their part to aid the greater good. Pescovitz explains that multidiscipline collaboration “strengthens the ‘social contract’ between science and society,” but this truly can apply to any form of cross discipline partnerships (2012). Collaboration is a point that Tom Khalil fails to address specifically in his criteria for a Grand Challenge, yet this is a keystone to innovation and impact.

Pescovitz, D. (2012) White House’s Tom Kalil on “Grand Challenges”, BoingBoing,

UNDP. (2018). Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations Development Programme.



One thought on “Grand Challenges

  1. I like the idea of “grand challenges” as a way for different segments of society, government, and international institutions to come together in order to find a creative solution, but I wonder if the hope of solving some of these challenges is unrealistic. One of my issues with the SDGs (and the MDGs before them) is that they are so broad and encompassing that they seem almost impossible to address, especially in such a short time frame. I like how inclusive they are, and how they put the world’s biggest issues into writing, but I worry that without strong enforcement mechanisms and the same commitment from countries across the globe, if these grand challenges can be met.


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