From the Editor

Dear VCE readers,

The engineering community here at USC Viterbi is no stranger to the concept of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges. Colloquially known as the Grand Challenges, this ubiquitous set of fourteen goals that will “help the people and the planet thrive” has been thoroughly integrated into our engineering curriculum. As a cultural artifact, the Grand Challenges works not only to consolidate and define the world’s most pressing issues, but also to position engineering within society. Naturally, due to its prominence in academic disciplines, the Grand Challenges has been subject to a great amount of both praise and critique alike. 

Dr. Erin Cech’s article ( Great Problems of Grand Challenges: Problematizing Engineering’s Understandings of Its Role in Society presents one such perspective. Dr. Cech’s research interests as a sociologist have prompted her to explore inequality in science and engineering, and her analysis of the Grand Challenges is a prime example of her scholarship. In her work, Dr. Cech delves into the history of the Grand Challenges as an effort on the part of the NAE to entice prospective engineers to technical disciplines, as well as remind current engineers of the greatness of their professions. Cech outlines four separate themes of critique of the Grand Challenges, including authorial particularism, double standards in engineering’s contributions to the fourteen challenges, the bracketing of “social” and “technical” realms, and deterministic definitions of progress. Cech contends that her critiques of the Challenges are a critique not of engineering itself, but rather of the limiting and overtly definite standards outlined by its authors. As such, she calls for increased recursiveness and inclusivity in how engineers characterize societal issues and seek to solve them.

The VCE editing team had the privilege of reviewing the work of many students in our engineering community through their analyses of Dr. Cech’s paper, as well as their personal discernments of the Grand Challenges. We hope that these selected papers can give you a greater understanding of the role that the Grand Challenges have played in our curriculums, discourse, and comprehension of our role as engineers in society. 

First, we take a look at Huzaifa Aslam’s work, where we delve into the first critique of authorial particularism. This critique focuses on the NAE authorial panel that developed the Grand Challenges, which was composed of eighteen professionals across science and engineering fields. In her article, Cech argues that the panelists’ ties to the U.S. and lack of diversity lead to the Challenges being skewed to the issues of developed nations. Ultimately, Aslam believes that this is a valid argument, but the lack of diversity on the panel is mischaracterized, due to the broad representation of various engineering disciplines and developing nations’ vested interest in many of the Grand Challenges.

Next, we move into Thomas Peters’ paper where he explores the critique of the engineering double standard where engineers attempt to solve the problems that they have created. Like Cech, Peters admits that engineers have been put on a pedestal to save the world through innovation, a concept that is defined as technological determinism. However, Peters finds that the double standard that Cech mentions is too generalizing, as engineers today should not be blamed for any harmful technologies that were created by their predecessors. Shub Gaur also discusses the engineering double standard, pointing out that Cech’s attribution of many of the world’s threats to engineering mishaps lacks nuance. Gaur demonstrates that instead of focusing solely on the consequences of engineer’s actions, it is also important to understand the intention behind innovation, which ultimately provides a more complex approach.

Then, we transition to Charles Liu’s paper, in which he directly addresses Cech’s critique of bracketing within the Grand Challenges. Liu agrees with Cech that engineers have traditionally kept “their work separate from its societal implications” (Liu). The author argues for increased involvement of ethicists and futurists in engineering disciplines in order to develop more socially aware solutions to the world’s most pressing issues.

Finally, we end with Natasha Singh’s examination of the consequences of technological determinism. Singh facilitates this discussion through current examples, such as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, and the use of facial recognition technology. Singh cautions against the rapid and irresponsible development of technology in the name of progress, something that Cech discusses at length in her own work.

This is the last issue that I will be publishing as Editor-in-Chief, and I cannot think of a better way to end my time with this publication. It is my great pleasure to present to you VCE’s inaugural Grand Challenges issue. I hope that your reading of these incredibly insightful articles will spark additional conversations about the roles that the Grand Challenges and engineers play in our world. 

Sabrina Sy, VCE Editor-in-Chief

  • 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.
  • Technological Determinism in the Grand Challenges
    Technological determinism is denounced by Dr. Erin Cech in her critique of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges report. This discussion focuses on the strengths of Cech’s argument surrounding the engineering double standard in social media, virtual reality, and reverse-engineering the brain. Though she makes many strong arguments, pieces of Cech’s argument fall short. Pointing fingers at the entirety of the engineering community and holding the Grand Challenges to a standard for which they were not intended weaken Cech’s overall discussion. However, her argument is ultimately a valid discussion of a profession that would benefit from wider perspectives in a world full of complex issues.
  • The Lies We Tell to Inspire: Responding to the Engineering Double Standard
    The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges are critiqued by Dr. Erin Cech for what she describes as a double standard in engineering. Though Cech rightly discusses a lack of accountability and acknowledgement within the profession, her argument lacks nuance. The Grand Challenges were ultimately a promotional tool meant to inspire the next generation of engineers, yet Cech holds them to a standard of being professional rules and guidelines. This paper will discuss the distinctions that Cech’s argument lacks, including placing an unreasonable amount of responsibility on engineers and overstating their influence.
  • How the Technical Sciences and the Social Sciences Should Go Hand-in-Hand
    The fourteen Grand Challenges presented by the National Academy of Engineers (NAE) fail to involve ethics as a part of the solution to these issues. Traditionally, engineers have kept their work separate from its societal implications. Engineers and their non-technical counterparts have an obligation to view all technical solutions under the moral lens of ethicists and futurists. Going forward, engineers must be aware of their limits and work with experts outside of their fields to develop solutions that will be cognizant of society as a whole.
  • Redefining Societal Progress for Engineers
    Dr. Erin Cech’s critique of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges focuses heavily on the pitfalls of technological determinism. This paper supports Cech’s argument through a discussion of current examples of the consequences of technological determinism, such as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, medication accessibility, and facial recognition technology. Though the consequences of a zealous engineering mentality are commonplace in our society, there are also current examples of tech companies neglecting to develop technology due to its possible negative consequences.