The Grand Challenges: Authorial Particularism and a Lost Opportunity for an Equitable Society


The fourteen Grand Challenges were developed by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in an effort to expose future generations to the wide range of innovation and technology that they could one day take part in. As detailed by the Challenges’ creators, the list includes challenges that are most significant to our current world. Dr. Erin Cech’s critique of the Grand Challenges is that a lack of diversity in the panel of engineering experts led to a lack of oversight into issues that are actually pertinent to developing nations. Cech’s argument that the Grand Challenges are a missed opportunity for social justice holds validity, but her mischaracterization of the lack of diversity requires further consideration.

Devised as a method to entice future generations to pursue engineering, the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges report identifies a set of 14 challenges most pertinent to “sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement” [1]. Sociologist Dr. Erin Cech considers the Grand Challenges report to be a manifestation of the “most troubling aspects of engineering,” one of which is a lack of diversity in the authorial panel [2]. This lack of diversity – and  the failure to acknowledge it – leads to a set of Challenges that are particular to the issues faced only by “well-off members of post-industrial nations” [2]. Ultimately, she considers this a missed opportunity for social justice, concluding that “investments inspired by this report could make health and education gaps between the wealthy and the poor substantially greater” [2]. I argue that though Cech mischaracterizes the diversity issue within the authorial panel, her overall critique that the Challenges are skewed to the problems of the wealthy is valid and that they could better cater to impoverished populations. I conclude by discussing the ethical implications of Authorial Particularism for the Challenges.

Cech cites the Grand Challenges as lacking in two areas of diversity: genders and disciplines. “Only three of the eighteen committee members are women” and “all authors are either engineers or scientists,” she writes. By not acknowledging this lack of representation, the panel engaged in the “god trick” whereby scientists and technologists assume themselves to be completely free of biases and have a “view from nowhere” when describing situations [2]. She claims that had the committee been more diverse or even recognized the lack of diversity, they might have decided upon a different set of challenges and solutions.

The Grand Challenges panel is indeed heavily skewed towards men and at no point acknowledges any biases in the authorship [1]. This is indicative of the broader problem of a male-dominated culture in STEM. On average, women are awarded around only 20% of total engineering degrees in the US [3][4]. Within the STEM workforce, only 28% of the employees are female and their median income is “about 74%” of their male counterparts’ income [4][5]. The engineering pay gap is noticeably larger than the average pay gap of 80 cents to every dollar in the overall labor market [4]. All of these factors perpetuate the lack of gender diversity which ultimately means that the problem-solving perspectives in engineering “just by nature…skew in a fairly narrow direction” [6]. For instance, Microsoft found out that their speech recognition software only recognized male voices, as it was developed by “20-30-year-old men” [7]. It is not difficult to imagine that the set of challenges and solutions drafted by a male-dominated authorial panel might also have been victim to similar problems in decision making. Thus, Cech is correct in asserting that acknowledging this bias or having a more gender-diverse panel might have led to a different set of challenges and solutions.

However, Cech’s diversity critique is unfounded when she claims that the panel lacked diversity of disciplines, which led to the participating engineers and scientists having a conflict of interest in catering the Challenges to their work or research [2]. She argues that this resulted in the selection of Challenges such as carbon sequestration and fixing the nitrogen cycle, issues “curiously particular to committee members’ own companies or research expertise” [2]. 

Firstly, blanket-labeling the panel as “engineers or scientists” undersells the experiences of some of the panel members, which vary across disciplines and professions [2]. For example, the chair of the panel, William J. Perry, is currently a Professor of Engineering but also an expert in U.S. foreign policy and a former U.S. Secretary of Defense [8]. Similarly, Calestous Juma is a Professor of the Practice of International Development who teaches courses in developmental policy and is most recognized for his work on sustainable development [9]. Furthermore, Jaime Lerner is not an engineer at all, but rather an architect and urban planner, as well as the former three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil [10]. The knowledge and experience that members like these would bring from the field of politics, international development, or urban planning would give the panel a more interdisciplinary perspective than that purely from engineering or science. 

Secondly, if the authors actively sought to align the Challenges to their areas of expertise, surely the Grand Challenges report should have included a challenge pertaining to reducing the costs of space exploration. After all, two of the panel members, Wesley Harris and Robert Socolow, are directly involved in the fields of Aeronautics and Aerospace [11][12]. It is true that some of the Challenges do align with the authors’ areas of expertise. For example, the Challenge “Restore and improve urban infrastructure” directly aligns with Jaime Lerner’s area of expertise mentioned above. Similarly, as Cech mentions, carbon sequestration and managing nitrogen cycles fall into the same category. However, it is also true that these Challenges aim to solve serious problems that the world faces: The report cites deterioration of urban infrastructures in megacities, global warming, and global hunger [13][1], all of which affect large portions of the population.

The crux of Cech’s critique is that the lack of diversity led to some Challenges being “wealthy Americans’ problems” [2]. According to her, perfecting virtual reality or reverse-engineering the brain are “simply irrelevant to poor populations, who face more pressing challenges such as a lack of basic necessities like food and education [2]. While the Challenges do bias towards the developed world, Cech oversimplifies their relevance – or lack thereof – to those in developing nations, especially when considering the challenge to reverse-engineer the brain. This Challenge could have significant benefits for populations in the developing world. As the Grand Challenges report details, a deeper understanding of the complexities of the brain will enable engineers to simulate it and improve the efficacy of drugs via more precise testing processes [1]. The work of researchers such as Satish Nair shows that simulating the brain and being able to replicate neural processes can also result in “new, more effective” treatments for anxiety [14]. Moreover, other researchers claim that the capability to simulate the mind can also provide insights to new approaches for understanding and tackling schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and visual and auditory impairments [15][16].

While those in more affluent nations will likely be the first to experience these benefits of reverse-engineering the brain, it does not mean that they will be the only ones to do so. The improvement in production and testing technology that accompanies cutting-edge treatments can reduce the cost of production for other effective medicines. For example, digitalized testing processes brought forth by simulations might reduce the need for the staff power required in a pharmaceutical lab or lessen human errors, making product recalls less frequent [17][1]. This improvement in the production process can then be deployed in the manufacturing process of the previous generations of ‘novel’ medicines, driving down the cost of production and ultimately making them more accessible for all populations [17]. Evidence of the impact of technological advancement on medicinal cost of production can be seen from the example of Penicillin, which cost $20 per 100,000 units when it was first developed, but now costs 1.3 cents for the same quantity [18]. Cech fails to fully consider such ramifications for the underprivileged.

Cech further argues that even when addressing problems such as education, which are relevant to all populations, the Challenges propose “particularistic solutions” for the rich [2]. For example, the Challenge pertaining to education prioritizes computer-optimized individualized instruction backed by neuroscience, which seems like a lofty goal when many schools around the world cannot afford textbooks or pencils [2]. Here, the Grand Challenges are worthy of much criticism. Taking the example of computers, their value to education and life as we know it is immense and obvious – the era we (in the U.S.) live in is essentially digital. Therefore, one would imagine that a report identifying challenges to “civilization’s sustained advancement” would focus on making computers as common as possible, starting with education [1]. The developing world would make massive strides in advancing to the digital era if new generations grew up using computers. Instead, the Grand Challenges report opts to prioritize computerized learning catered to each individual’s personality and learning habits – an aspect of education that offers the most opportunities for “complex and innovative engineering design” instead of benefitting the most people [1][2]. 

Furthermore, when discussing the importance of solar energy, the Challenges again pass up the chance to consider the needs of the impoverished. The report cites the finite nature of fossil fuels, along with their detrimental impact to the environment, as reasons to prioritize cheap solar energy [1], yet it fails to take into account those who would benefit the most from cheap solar energy – countries such as Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Timor-Leste, Libya, Mexico, and many others [19]. These countries have some of the highest solar energy potential and are home to millions of people facing either rationing of or a complete lack of energy [20]. Catering to these countries would not only have made the Challenges non-particularistic, but it would have also established the importance of economically feasible solar energy more compellingly.

Cech concludes that ignoring the problems of these countries and prioritizing technologically complicated solutions hampers social justice and that investments inspired by the Grand Challenges could widen health and education gaps between the poor and the wealthy [2]. While she asserts correctly that social justice in terms of a more equitable society is compromised by technologically complex solutions, the latter half of her conclusion takes the argument too far considering that, ultimately, the report is a marketing tool aimed at attracting young minds to engineering. 

Overall, Cech’s Authorial Particularism critique makes many strong arguments against the Grand Challenges regarding gender diversity and the particularism to first-world nations. Even though her analysis has some gaps – such as the mischaracterization of the panel’s discipline diversity and oversimplification of the ramifications for developing nations in reverse-engineering the brain – her criticisms still point to issues in the report which have broader ethical implications for the engineering profession. When the developers of the Grand Challenges engage in the “god trick” and fail to acknowledge their obvious gender bias, it could be considered a failure to “acknowledge their errors” [21]. This goes against the first clause of the first Professional Obligation listed by the NSPE Code of Ethics which requires Engineers to be guided “by the highest standards of honesty and integrity,” including being honest about their shortcomings [21].

Moreover, by ignoring the ethical considerations for a more equitable society, not only does the report compromise social justice, it also contradicts the preamble of the NSPE Code which states that “services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity” [21]. Not only would consideration of social justice have avoided this contradiction, it would have also aligned the Challenges with the sixth Fundamental Canon of the NSPE Code which states that engineers should “conduct themselves…ethically so as to enhance the…usefulness of the profession” [21].

By Huzaifa Aslam, Viterbi School of Engineering, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences; University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Huzaifa was a junior studying Philosophy, Political Science, Economics, and Computer Science. He is interested in soccer, philosophy, and very spicy food.


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Links for Further Reading