Grand Challenges

In the 21stCentury, we are faced with a multitude of problems to solve from climate change to wars to dangerous diseases like Ebola. While these problems may seem daunting or even impossible to solve to some, there are many people around the world who see these important issues and decide to take on the challenge. This type of thinking is referred to as Moonshot thinking. This term comes from the American mission to put the first man on the moon despite this feat seeming impossible to many people. This type of motivated and visionary mindset is what is needed to address the Grand Challenges we face today.

As defined by the Obama Administration, Grand Challenges are “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination”. There are a few key elements that a goal must have to be considered a Grand Challenge. First, these goals must think big but still be attainable. This means that setting a realistic time frame in which to solve these problems is a crucial factor. Second, Grand Challenges should be multidisciplinary, bringing together people from different fields as well as the public and private sectors to work together to achieve their goal. Finally, these Grand Challenges need to be compelling and inspiring to capture the public’s imagination. If all these criteria are met, then a goal can be labeled as a Grand Challenge. The Obama Administration took a particular interest in promoting Grand Challenges such as the BRAIN Initiative and the Asteroid Grand Challenge.

Although Grand Challenges have historically been confined to the science and technology fields, in recent years the development field has begun applying the idea of Grand Challenges to focus on ambitious but achievable goals within international development. USAID has promoted several Grand Challenges since 2011 including All Children ReadingSecuring Water for FoodFighting Ebola, and Scaling Off-Grid Energy. These Grand Challenges cover a variety of important issues, and by formulating them as Grand Challenges, USAID is able to bring focus and motivation to these global problems. 

I think that one of the most important impacts of Grand Challenges is their ability to inspire both experts and the public to achieve big goals. Going forward, I think that the US government should refocus on promoting Grand Challenges, particularly those focused on climate change. Climate change is an immense problem that many people feel hopeless about, but I think that creating a series of Grand Challenges to address some of the serious problems of climate change, such as rising sea levels, resiliency after natural disasters, and reliance on fossil fuels, would help refocus and motivate the country to take on these challenges and maintain hope for the future.