A new report should spur public debate about how science and technology can best sustain the earth while furthering the goals of humanity, according to Robert Socolow, one of 18 maverick thinkers convened by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to map the greatest technological challenges of this century.

The report was released Feb.15 in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, talks about the Grand Challenges project in the following interview.

What exactly is the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges project?

Robert SocolowIn some respects we were given a crazy assignment: to identify and rank the greatest engineering challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century.

Ultimately we didn’t find it within our intellectual powers to rank these challenges. How do you rank the eradication of poverty versus keeping the planet habitable versus avoiding nuclear war? Instead we came up with broad categories of the challenges that lie ahead and within those categories identified specific initiatives.

What are those broad categories?

The first broad category encompasses environmental wholeness – the need for humans to take care of our earthly home and to be good stewards of the environmental quality that we depend upon.

The second category was our own wellness – the medical side of human life.

The third category acknowledges that we have a dark side as human beings ourselves and that our lives have a certain precariousness. We lumped challenges in this category under the word “vulnerability.” It would be very nice if we could omit this category and attend only to environmental and medical well-being. But we live on a planet that experiences earthquakes and tsunamis. And we are a species that causes trouble for itself. We have a streak in us as humans that we have to recognize and contend with.

The fourth category we refer to as the joy of living. After you’ve got health and environmental soundness and you feel protected against the bad side of both human nature and Mother Nature, there is still something else to aspire to — self-knowledge and enlightenment.

The 20th century brought incredible advances in our understanding of our universe, our solar system, our Earth, our own DNA – we have so much more of a sense of time and space beyond where our ancestors were 150 years ago. Engineering was the fulcrum that tipped open our world to these discoveries. It will play a similar role in the future, contributing to new understandings of our surroundings, our history, our science, our cultures – contributing to our sense of what it means to be human.

Why do we need to identify grand challenges for engineering?

In part, this is about communication with the public. Many salaries are paid out of public funds – for teaching and for research. What is the return on this investment? We need to make sure that people understand how past investments in science and engineering have improved human life. Engineering has delivered many successes: our electrified world, indoor plumbing, air travel – we take these things for granted but we shouldn’t. No doubt there is a down side to, say, the automobile or to electrical power. These engineering successes can end up posing new engineering challenges. Notably, how do we make these innovations work on a finite planet?

Without investments made by previous generations, we would not enjoy the seemingly invisible infrastructure that makes our modern lives possible. It goes without saying that if we don’t make similar investments now we will rob future generations of the quality of life that they should enjoy.

The other important motivation for bringing attention to the grand challenges that lie ahead for engineering is that we want to make sure that young people know that engineering is an exciting profession, one that makes a difference to society.

What specific initiatives in the report are most compelling to you personally?

In terms of keeping our planet habitable, I would have to point to the challenges of managing carbon and nitrogen on a planetary scale. Managing carbon – which is produced when we burn fossil fuels — by capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide, has gotten a lot of media attention, given the concerns over global warming. It’s a challenge my colleagues and I at Princeton have been working on for many years,

Managing nitrogen and avoiding dangerous interference with the nitrogen cycle is an engineering grand challenge that is not so well-known. In the process of fertilizing the planet we are massively increasing the amount of biologically available nitrogen on the planet. So we are not just warming the planet, we are fertilizing the planet. In both cases you are creating ecological change and disturbance. We fertilize the cornfields of Iowa and the nitrogen flows down the Mississippi. There is a region in the Gulf of Mexico where so much fertilization has been deposited that it is a dead zone during certain times of the year. So we have a situation where the ecological system bites back.

Could you say something about specific challenges within the other broad categories?

In the category of health, individualized medicine is paramount. We need to aspire toward a medical model that takes into account the particularities of the whole person, and part of this is an engineering challenge.

In the category of vulnerabilities, we outlined some of the important technological challenges in detecting surreptitious nuclear material and the importance of taking into account the whole fuel cycle when it comes to nuclear energy. We don’t want to engineer energy systems that create what might be considered an attractive nuisance – systems that open up ways for nuclear material to fall into the wrong hands. Also, since we live in an increasingly networked virtual world, cybersecurity is a fundamental engineering challenge.

In terms of “joy of living” the challenge that I find most compelling is individualized learning. New technologies offer extraordinary opportunities for learning to become tailored to personal aptitudes and learning styles.

You said that the committee declined to rank the grand engineering challenges of the 21st century. But National Academy of Engineering is inviting the public to do so?

Yes, people can go to the National Academy of Engineering website to download a copy of the report and to cast their vote on what they consider the most important challenges. You can find the website here:


The public may ultimately come to the same conclusion as the committee – that these challenges cannot be ranked because they are all so important. But we need to get everyone in on the debate and the discussion. After all, these are challenges and opportunities that ultimately affect all of society.