America's big names in engineering, as well as millions of Internet users around the world, are being asked to weigh in with their picks for the greatest technological challenges of the next century — a nine-month process that could give birth to new research initiatives.
The project, called the "Grand Challenges for Engineering" program, is aimed at gathering up all those ideas and distilling them into a list of 20 puzzles for engineers to solve — in fields ranging from energy to communications to aerospace to advanced materials.
The National Academy of Engineering, an arm of the Washington-based National Academies, is supervising the project, armed with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The academy is a congressionally chartered, nonprofit organization that provides the U.S. government with expert advice on engineering issues.
"NSF asked us to do this," William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, said of the Grand Challenges project. "I think they had two things in mind: One is to help them to better focus research funding and people on the problems that are really important. The other is a simple desire to excite people, to make them aware of the possibilities."
Other groups have posed their own Grand Challenges over the years, ranging from the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles to the X Prize programs for genomics and private-sector spaceflight . The engineering academy has its own million-dollar prize program, known as the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability. The Grand Challenges for Engineering program, however, is aimed at distributing ideas rather than cash.
Wulf said the program was inspired by an earlier exercise that came up with the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, from electrification to the Internet. That academy project looked back over 100 years of past breakthroughs; this one, Wulf said, would preview the next 100 years.
"It's really all about people and society, not just technologies," he said. "Yeah, it's a list of 20 great technologies, but they're great because of their impact on society. That's the kind of excitement that we can generate here — not just by listing a bunch of technologies that geeks would enjoy, but by giving a sense of the technologies that can better the lives of people."
The first stage of the project is to gather suggestions on future challenges from the engineering community as well as the general public — and it's here that MSNBC.com plays a role. Comments are being solicited through the academy's Web site as well as MSNBC.com's message boards. We'll also be publishing the academy's Grand Challenges essays and adding our own stories to stimulate the conversation.
Comments already have started to come in to the Grand Challenges Web site from such luminaries as Berkeley Professor Charles Townes , co-inventor of the laser. "I suggest that an important general area for future engineering is in controlling and saving energy of all kinds, which is important to humanity and to the nature of our world. This includes housing, electricity, transportation, machinery and a wide variety of fields," he wrote.
Several professors said global climate change would pose the most urgent challenge facing humanity over the next century. "The overall challenge is to see ourselves, we humans, as a biogeochemical force that influences the planet at global scale and act accordingly. Engineers will play critical roles in building the way forward," Stanford University's Lynn Orr wrote.
Selecting the top 20
The comments will be winnowed down, then reviewed by an 18-member blue-ribbon committee headed by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Among the other members are Google co-founder Larry Page, genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter and millionaire inventors Dean Kamen and Ray Kurzweil.
The academy will unveil the 20 top challenges in September — with the hope that the resulting report will be at least as influential as "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," an earlier study that helped spark President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative last year.
During the past fiscal year, the federal government spent $9.4 billion on engineering research, according to a budget analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (PDF file). Wulf refrained from saying that the list of Grand Challenges would dictate the course of future funding, but he hoped that the exercise would provide useful input for federal officials.
"They've got limited resources and would like to spend them as effectively as possible," Wulf said.
Inspiring the next generation
In Wulf's view, inspiring the next generation of engineers was just as important.
"We have a declining fraction of our young people going into engineering and the hard sciences," he noted. "There's at least some evidence that that's [due to] a stereotype of what engineering is about — that it doesn't help people very much. But boy, look at that list of 20 engineering achievements. There's probably nothing that has improved people's lives more than engineering.
"I think the same is going to be true of the next 100 years," Wulf said. "Maybe more so."
MSNBC.com has agreed to publish materials from the academy and provide a forum for comments on the grand engineering challenges of the next century. You can also leave comments at the project Web site, EngineeringChallenges.org.
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