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News Release 08-028

Leading Engineers and Scientists Identify Advances That Could Improve Quality of Life Around the World

21st Century grand engineering challenges unveiled

Photo of solar panels

One of the grand engineering challenges seeks to make solar energy more affordable.

February 20, 2008

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

A diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the National Science Foundation (NSF), announced 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century 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 co-founder Larry Page. "If we focus our effort on the important grand challenges of our age, we can hugely improve the future."

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

The final choices fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish -- sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability and increasing 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.

"We chose engineering challenges that we feel can, through creativity and commitment, be realistically met, most of them early in this century," said committee chair and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry." Some can be, and should be, achieved as soon as possible."

The committee decided not to rank the challenges. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the project Web site -- <>.

The Grand Challenges site features a five-minute video overview of the project along with committee member interview excerpts. A podcast of the news conference announcing the challenges will also be available on the site starting next week.

The Challenges:

  • 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:

William Perry (committee chair), former secretary of defense, U.S. Department of Defense, and Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor and professor of engineering, Stanford University

Alec Broers, chairman, Science and Technology Select Committee, United Kingdom House of Lords

Farouk El-Baz, research professor and director, Center for Remote Sensing, Boston University

Wesley Harris, department head and Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bernadine Healy, former director, U.S. National Institutes of Health, and health editor and columnist, U.S. News & World Report

W. Daniel Hillis, chairman and co-founder, Applied Minds Inc.

Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development, Harvard University

Dean Kamen, founder and president, DEKA Research and Development Corp.

Raymond Kurzweil, chairman and chief executive officer, Kurzweil Technologies Inc.

Robert Langer, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jaime Lerner, architect and urban planner, Instituto Jaime Lerner

Bindu Lohani, director general and chief compliance officer, Asian Development Bank

Jane Lubchenco, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology, Oregon State University

Mario Molína, Nobel laureate and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of California, San Diego

Larry Page, co-founder and president of products, Google Inc.

Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Princeton University Environmental Institute

J. Craig Venter, president, The J. Craig Venter Institute

Jackie Ying, executive director, Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology


Media Contacts
Josh Chamot, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-7730, email:
Randy Atkins, National Academy of Engineering, (202) 334-1508, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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