WASHINGTON, D.C.—A diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the National Science Foundation, recently announced the following, unranked, 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century that, if met, would improve how we live:

  • 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; and
  • engineer the tools for scientific discovery.

"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 of accomplished engineers and scientists was established in 2006 and met several times to discuss and develop the list of challenges. Through an interactive website, the effort received worldwide input from prominent engineers and scientists, as well as from the general public, during 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 National Academy of Engineering is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the project website (www.engineeringchallenges.org). The Grand Challenges site features a five-minute video overview of the project, along with committee member interview excerpts.