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21 Century's Grand Engineering Challenges Unveiled


The U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently announced the grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century. A diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the U.S. National Science Foundation, revealed 14 challenges that, if met, would improve how we live.

"Tremendous advances in quality of life have come from improved technology in areas such as farming and manufacturing," said committee member and Google cofounder Larry Page. "If we focus our effort on the important grand challenges of our age, we can hugely improve the future."

The panel was established in 2006 and met several times to discuss and develop the list of challenges. Through an interactive website, the effort received worldwide input from prominent engineers and scientists, as well as from the general public, over a one-year period. More than 50 subject-matter experts reviewed the panel's conclusions.

The final choices fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish: sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living. The committee did not attempt to include every important challenge, nor did it endorse particular approaches to meeting those selected. Rather than focusing on predictions or gee-whiz gadgets, the goal was to identify what needs to be done to help people and the planet thrive.

The 14 Challenges are:

Make solar energy affordable

Provide energy from fusion

Develop carbon sequestration methods

Manage the nitrogen cycle

Provide access to clean water

Restore and improve urban infrastructure

Advance health informatics

Engineer better medicines

Reverse-engineer the brain

Prevent nuclear terror

Secure cyberspace

Enhance virtual reality

Advance personalized learning

Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

The committee decided not to rank the challenges. NAE is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the project website.

The Grand Challenges site also features a five-minute video overview of the project along with committee member interview excerpts. Committee members include: former U.S. Secretary of Defense William ; Stanford University professors Michael and Barbara Berberian ; U.K. Science and Technology Select Committee Chairman Alec Broers; Jackie Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology; Boston University Professor Farouk El-Baz; Dean Kamen, founder and president of DEKA; Nobel laureate and U.C. San Diego Professor Mario Molna; and Google's Larry Page; among others.

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the U.S. National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.


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