Grand Challenges

Grand Challenges are big ambitious problems that face the society. Usually they tend to focus on the sciences and technology. While these goals don’t have a solution and are ambitious- they are not unachievable. Instead, they act more as motivational and require multi-disciplinary collaboration. An ‘iconic example’ of a grand challenge is when president Kennedy challenged the scientific community to achieve spaceflight in a given timeline. The science community had to use moon shot thinking in order to complete the impossible at that time task. Now, many years later this is why many refer to using ‘moonshot thinking’ when thinking about breaking intractable goals.

Grand challenges relate to a wide variety of issues such as new energy sources that are clean, affordable and reliable, cures for cancer, improving health care delivery and reducing the cost and others. Another grand challenge that is relevant today and closely linked with the 2030 global agenda are the new ways of teaching and learning, particularly that are inclusive in nature to excluded communities, such as persons with disabilities.  Disability and development is a grand challenge for the world: more than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, which is 10% of the world’s population. Unlike many, persons with disabilities are the ones that face many barriers in accessing transportation, ICT’s, education, employment, political representation.  And these barriers are not the individual’s problem, but they are societal problems also. It is the society that created these barriers and it is our responsibility to help get ride of them.  This sort of exclusion isn’t just a moral rationale but it also has economic rationales. PWD have the potential to benefit everyone, by adding onto the labor market and economic development opportunities. In addition, incorporating people with disabilities is also now a legal responsibility thanks to the adaptation of the CRPD, which is designed to protect the rights and freedom and insure inclusion for persons with disabilities. Thus, it is up to our society to help incorporate inclusive educational policies. An example of a solution to this particular grand challenge is collabotory.

Grand Challenges

Grand challenges are complex societal problems that have yet to be solved and require science and technological innovations to understand them and find their solution. These challenges are not only ambitious goals but they are physically achievable within a desired timeline. Another term often used in relation is ‘moonshot thinking’ which refers to President Kennedy’s ambitious goal to send a man to moon. Solving a grand challenge requires moonshot thinking and multidisciplinary collaboration. Fundamental research is also critical to defining societal goals and finding their solutions. Branscomb argues that in particular two policies must be implemented in order to solve these grand challenges; promoting ‘Jeffersonian science’ and moving products of science into new industries. It is extremely important that schools encourage students to study science and engineering and that higher education devote more resources to laboratories that can produce valuable innovations. Some examples of the challenges that can be addressed with these changes include developing new energy sources, vaccinations, and curing cancer. Other grand challenges that have already been identified explicitly and are working to be achieved by the global community are the Sustainable Development Goals. An important quality that the SDGs have is their ability to capture the public’s imagination as they are intrinsically motivating. Recently, the global approach to development has changed to include more cross-national collaboration, research and innovation, and inclusivity. Although inclusivity is still an area that needs to be improved particularly in the context of language within the SDGs, more and more development goals and projects address and include people with disabilities. It is critical that persons with disabilities be included in development goals because it is estimated that they make up fifteen percent of the world’s population, eighty percent of which live in developing countries. Not including persons with disabilities when developing solutions to grand challenges in the development field would exclude one billion people from the potential benefits. The Sustainable Development Goal that I find to be the biggest challenge and most intriguing is goal thirteen, Climate Action. It is also important to note that these seventeen goals are all interdependent and in most cases, one cannot be achieved without the achievement of another. For example, goal seven, affordable and clean energy, must be part of the solution in order to address goal thirteen. Another important quality that the SDGs possess that motivates nations to finding solutions is it’s time frame. Fifteen years is a short enough time frame to keep the current global leaders engaged but is also long enough to make achieving these goals feasible.

The Grand Challenge of Disability and Development

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people….We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” John F. Kennedy announced at Rice University on September 12th, 1962. And we did- America landed on the moon that same decade on July 20th, 1969. That is the original “moonshot thinking”, or the idea that we must tackle ambitious, impossible projects in order to create change.

“Grand Challenges” encapsulates moonshot thinking, although the term itself is credited to David Hilbert, who laid out 23 mathematical questions at the International Mathematical Congress in Paris in 1900.  Those original Grand Challenges detailed “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (as defined by Lewis Branscomb) and challenged a cross-section of experts to work together on solutions.  While traditionally focusing on science and technology, Branscomb and others instead favor larger societally-focused projects. Their vision of the Grand Challenges conceptual framework has been embraced by USAID, the White House, and the UN. Examples of programs oriented on the Grand Challenges framework include the USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s partnership on Ensuring Effective Health Supply Chain as well as other USAID projects like Scaling Off Grid Energy, Combating Zika and Future Threats, and All Children Reading.

The Grand Challenge is Sustainable Development Goals and its preceding Millennium Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are a 15 year plan to tackle Grand Challenges across 17 different issue areas established in 2015. This look at systemic challenges worldwide creates an alternative mindset to development. In fact, they have become key in defining how we think about program effectiveness by giving targets and indicators to meet. These goals provide a unifying framework for state and nonstate actors worldwide to enact progress.

The SDGs made the UN framework more inclusive by including the grand challenge of disability and development with eleven explicit references to persons with disabilities. This is important because it will guide behavior by states. This has been furthered by high level work such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006 that shifted conceptual thinking from disabilities as a medical condition to a human right, which creates opportunities and higher equity for the traditionally marginalized 15% of every country’s population. This is an important step towards to true equality. While public policy focused on the inclusion of disabled persons may not spark the same initial general interest level as landing on the moon, it is surely a moonshot idea to radically shift how we think, talk, and create policy for this excluded group. This opens a window for a population whose potential contributions to society have been dismissed.