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

PDF: Slides from the presentation (ITIF.org)