21st Century Grand Challenges

This July, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will convene a conference on Grand Challenges—ambitious goals on a national or global scale that capture the imagination and demand advances in innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology.  Grand Challenges are an important element of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation.

An example of a past Grand Challenge was the sequencing of the entire human genome that, according to one recent study, has contributed to the U.S. economy more than $140 for every $1 invested by the Federal government.  The Department of Energy is leading the way in Clean Energy Grand Challenges with “SunShot,” an initiative to make solar energy as cheap as coal, and “EV Everywhere,” an initiative announced by President Obama last month to make electric vehicles as affordable and convenient to own as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles.  The US Agency for International Development has a series of Grand Challenges for Development, including “Saving Lives at Birth,” which aims to increase access to health care for pregnant women and newborns in the developing world by at least 50 percent, and the “All Children Reading” initiative to givestudents in low-income countries basic reading skills by the time they leave primary school.

This summer’s conference will highlight progress the Administration has made on existing Grand Challenge initiatives and will recognize new commitments and actions by Federal agencies, companies, philanthropists, universities, and non-profits to set and meet Grand Challenges.

The Obama Administration supports the identification and pursuit of Grand Challenges because the approach can:

  • Help solve important economic and societal problems;
  • Serve as a “North Star” for high-impact, multi-disciplinary collaborations among government, industry, universities, non-profits, and philanthropists;
  • Create a foundation for industries and jobs of the future;
  • Capture public imagination and increase support for public policies that foster science, technology, and innovation; and
  • Inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

A number of organizations are already demonstrating the power of setting sights on Grand Challenges. The Gates Foundation has made important commitments through its Grand Challenges in Global Health. Duke University, Olin, and the University of Southern California have partnered with the National Academy of Engineering in a Grand Challenge Scholars Program that enables students to organize research and learning around an engineering Grand Challenge. IBM has driven advances in computing and artificial intelligence with Watson beating Ken Jennings at JEOPARDY! and Deep Blue beating Kasporov at Chess.  Google is making significant investments in self-driving cars, building on the technical advances stimulated by the DARPA Grand Challenge.

This Administration believes that the Grand Challenge model has great potential to do even more. Companies and philanthropies could sponsor major incentive prizes designed to address a Grand Challenge.  Angel, venture, and impact investors could back start-ups that are pursuing Grand Challenges.  Large companies could partner with these startups by serving as early customers and providing capital, mentoring, and milestone-based payments. And media companies and other storytelling enterprises could help elevate the role that Grand Challenges and innovators play in our culture—and help make engineers and entrepreneurs the rock stars of the 21st century.

If you are interested in getting involved, please contact the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at challenges@ostp.gov.

Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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