White House's Tom Kalil on "Grand Challenges"


BB pal Tom Kalil of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy gave a presentation today about Grand Challenges, "ambitious yet achievable goals that capture the public’s imagination and that require innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology to achieve," like NASA's Green Flight Challenge and the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health. I think Tom's speech, delivered to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, does a terrific job showing why the grand challenge approach is a powerful way to tackle some pretty daunting problems. He also puts grand challenges in the context of President Obama's Strategy for American Innovation. (By the way, it must be nice to be authorized to use the Presidential PowerPoint template.) From Tom's speech:

As President Kennedy observed, “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.”

Although there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a Grand Challenge, I want to focus on Grand Challenges that have the following attributes.

First, they can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration.

Second, they are ambitious but achievable. Proposing to end scarcity in five years is certainly ambitious, but it is not achievable. As Arthur Sulzberger put it, “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

Third, Grand Challenges are compelling and intrinsically motivating. They should capture the public’s imagination.

Many people should be willing to devote a good chunk of their career to the pursuit of one of these goals.

Fourth, Grand Challenges have a “Goldilocks” level of specificity and focus. “Improving the human condition” is not a Grand Challenge because it does not provide enough guidance for what to do next. One of the virtues of a goal like “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” is that it is clear whether it has been achieved. Grand Challenges should have measurable targets for success and timing of completion. On the other hand, a Grand Challenge that is too narrowly defined may assume a particular technical solution and reduce the opportunity for new approaches.

Finally, Grand Challenges can help drive and harness innovation and advances in science and technology. I certainly do not want to argue that technology is going to solve all of our problems. But it can be a powerful tool, particularly when combined with social, financial, policy, institutional, and business model innovations. The identification and pursuit of Grand Challenges has a number of benefits.

Grand Challenges can catalyze innovations that foster economic growth and job creation, spur the formation of multidisciplinary teams of researchers, encourage multi-sector collaborations, bring new expertise to bear on important problems, strengthen the “social contract” between science and society, and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to work on hard and important problems.

Also, as various technologies such as bio, info, and nanotechnology become more and more powerful – the question “what should we do” is arguably as or more important than “what can we do.” This is not primarily a technical question, it is a question that relies on imagination, creativity, values, and our individual and shared views on how we define progress. PDF: "The Grand Challenges of the 21st Century" by Tom Kalil (Whitehouse.gov)

PDF: Slides from the presentation (ITIF.org)



  1. Here is the killer question: which of these Grand Challenges is the White House willing to spend at least as much money on per year as the currently running “invade Afghanistan and force the population to love the occupying foreign power” or “eliminate American use of currently illegal recreational drugs” Grand Challenges?

      1. America is dying for inspiration and optimism.

        Someone once said something like “injecting the American people with crippling despair isn’t just possible, it’s politically viable.”

        We’ve had enough of that crap.

        Congress seems to be pretty much all id. Scare them with a disapproving cocktail circuit, give them a sniff of constituent contracting projects to cut the ribbons on, or let them hear the roar of the crowd. Few of them may be open to personal inspiration any more, but inspire the people, and Congress will scramble to align themselves with the winners.

        The real challenges may be to prevent vulture contractors from draining the resources out of any projects. Transparency is the solution to that.

        1. Memo to the Democratic Party: hire Jim Saul here, or someone else with a clue.

          The vast edifice of Republican control (eg, I just saw This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated) is rapidly destroying what remains of your nation and its democracy.

          As USAnians are fond of saying, it’s the bottom of the ninth etc… and you better get your shit together and get at least as half as slick as the pricks, or the good ole US will be a fascist basket case (it’s looking that way already) inside a decade.

          There’s a Grand Challenge for you…

          The rest of the ‘free’ world is bloody counting on you, OK? Instead of pissing away another opportunity, capitalise on Limbaugh’s high insanity and drive that wedge into those bastards! We’re watching.

      1. The official reasoning behind the west’s occupation and inteference in the middle east seems to change every few years, and has done for the past century.  I don’t even think politicians know why we’re there any more, I think it’s just a force of habit.

  2. “Jocks and nerds may come together, I believe it. I believe it is so. But only the nerds will save the earth.” –John Hodgman

  3. A 12 page speech that doesn’t use the word “climate” even once? By someone from White House OSTP? Instead of reading it, wouldn’t our time be better spent kissing our asses goodbye?

    1. I think it’s part of the strange thinking from the Obama white house that if they avoid words that the GOP finds offensive, then maybe the GOP will play nice with them. Bit like Lucy and the football…

    2. He spoke at length on clean energy and environmental challenges, specifically on working on developing processes to reduce toxic substances.  Obama administration classifies CO2 as a toxin. 

  4. What a fine example of the political utility of talking about so-called “Grand Challenges.”

    The first thing to get straight is that no “Grand Challenge” is going to inspire a culture to value education. It’s the other way around; Cultures that value education inspire Grand Projects. The prototypical Grand Challenge is the Apollo Program, a project clearly rooted in Cold War fears of eventual Soviet Communist supremacy. It was that fear which drove Americans peculiarly to value freedom and the associated enlightenment ideal of prosperity and might through education. (A value system encouraged by savvy propaganda in a more culturally simple and homogeneous time, to boot!) For a long time, the perceived benefits of technology–of an automated farm that could feed ten times what a more primitive farm could feed, for example–had a moral aspect that coincided with the benefits of education. Engineers built farm equipment, which fed mouths, while taking home a higher pay and concomitant higher standard of living that were both perceived as *earned* through the discipline and virtue of education. It certainly did no harm to those ideals that the success of an engineer or scientist often lead to the very lucrative success of his or her employer.

    Where is any of that, now? What, for example, is the clear moral imperative of developing the next hand-held touch-screen computing/communication device? How lucrative would such a design be for any specific engineer? And where’s the differential for the person that designs it? That person was an educated engineer before s/he designed it, and is the same after, except for maybe the possession of a bonus. Quick, name the most important film of the last five years. Can’t do it? Oh, that’s because the nearly-direct-to-streaming-video model to which the entertainment industry has had to resort–as a natural response to fierce competition–has saturated the culture with forgettable effluvium. How is a clear propaganda model going to get through that muck? Are you going to track the next Moon shot on Twitter? Facebook? Google Plus? MoonShot.gov? Even if there were an entity with the means to get a message through, what could possible be motivated to do so? They’re already rich, and there’s no credible threat to them getting richer, uninterrupted.

    It’s telling that the “automated manufacturing” talking point showed up under the category of making Mars habitable. About the closest that any commercial or government entity can imagine self-reproducing manufacturing capability is on Mars. That’s an idea that is literally profitable for nobody who has the means to do it.

    As a society, we’ve ratcheted far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy that we are able to actualize our potentials more surely than any generation before. The side effects of this are the sheer size of society, the sheer amount of noise it produces, and the raising of the baseline against which all stories of the future are implicitly judged. This has become our potential, to be earthbound and burning coal for power until it runs out while ineffective politicians make PowerPoint presentations about Grand Challenges.

    Or, to frame it purely in terms of the public imagination: We might actually be able to put a man on the Moon, or even a woman! We’ll never put a hipster on the Moon, though, because nobody can relate and s/he wouldn’t care.

    And we’re all hipsters, now.

    1. I don’t think things are that different, and I think proposing challenges is a good thing to do.

      People were generally cynical about the space program during the Apollo years.  (We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t…)  Bill Gates, who profited astronomically from the computer revolution, is now devoting his mind, money and time to improving healthcare and alleviating poverty.  Hollywood, since it’s inception, has produced saturation levels of forgettable effluvium, we only remember the good ones.  Elon Musk, hipster, doesn’t care about going to the moon, but he’s passionate about getting to Mars. 

      Elucidating challenges won’t change the world by itself.  But it has the chance to inspire someone to do so.  I still know brilliant young people who may change the world for the better.  It may need to only inspire a handful to make a serious change.  While it didn’t inspire you at all, maybe it will inspire the next Tesla.  Of course while Tesla changed the world, he was largely ripped off by his employers back then too. 

    2. A set of my favorite quotes seems on the nose…

      “History has always been a race between education and catastrophe.” – H.G. Wells

      “”Run faster. History is a constant race between invention and catastrophe. Education helps but it is never enough. You must also run.” – Frank Herbert

  5. First, they can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration. 

    i agree with it..

  6. Here is a Grand Challenge, eliminate PACs from election campaigns.  Might even require a Constitutional amendment and cost thousands of lives but I think the nation could achieve it by 2100.

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