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Grand Challenges

What are grand challenges?

One of the earliest appearances of the term "grand challenges" was in the 1987 report from the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, “A Research and Development Strategy for High Performance Computing.”

a fundamental problem in science or engineering, with broad applications, whose solution would be enabled by the application of the high performance computing resources

A more modern version comes from the University of Colorado, Boulder:

Grand Challenges are ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination

Where do we see grand challenges?

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Bostic, Heidi. (2016). "The Humanities Must Engage Global Grand Challenges." Chronicle of Higher Education.

Flaherty, Colleen. (2015). "Grand Challenges All Around." Inside Higher Ed.

Lufkin, Bryan. (2017). "50 Grand Challenges for the 21st Century." BBC News.

The following are programs created for or by universities.

NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program10

Born from the increasing call to for engineers to address grand challenges, the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program has been implemented at more than 40 engineering schools around the world and an additional 122 have declared their intent to join. The program combines a variety of teaching methods to ensure that students are prepared to address the grand challenges facing society this century.

Indiana University Grand Challenges11

Attempting to tackle large-scale, complex problems, Indiana University has chosen a series of initiatives as part of their Grand Challenges programs. The projects tend to be Indiana-based; currently the initiative is addressing addiction crises in Indiana.

University of Colorado, Boulder12

With the context of changing environment, increasing population, and dwindling resources, the University of Colorado, Boulder seeks to use their strengths in Earth, space, and social sciences to address these problems. The emphasis is on educating, preparing, and providing opportunities for their students.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville13

The Joseph C. and Judith E. Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program at the Tickle College of Engineering is a program meant to be a sort of mid-way point between the standard track and the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program. It is a more strenuous program intending to prepare students to successfully address the grand challenges of the twenty-first century.

A selection of organizations publicly providing support to those searching for solutions to grand challenges:

The Grand Challenges Network5

A network of several organizations all seeking to support research and solutions of grand challenges worldwide. Grants are applied for and distributed according to each organizations’ specific goals. The focus tends toward global development.

Global Grand Challenges6 (part of the Grand Challenges Network)

Launched in 2003 under the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Grand Challenges in Global Health distributed grants to support research on 14 major scientific challenges that had the potential to improve global health, especially in the developing world, significantly. After several years the name was changed to Global Grand Challenges to reflect an expansion of scope.

USAID Grand Challenges for Development Initiative7 (part of the Grand Challenges Network)

This initiative operates under the beliefs that science and technology can be transformation when properly applied and global engagement is necessary for instigating breakthroughs. Non-traditional solvers are engaged through a variety of support methods to focus on international development problems, approaches, and solutions.

Grand Challenges Canada8 (part of the Grand Challenges Network)

A governmental program, the Grand Challenges Canada funds innovators in low and middle income countries with a feminist investment approach. The organization has supported more than 800 projects in over 80 countries.

US Department of Energy9

The US Department of Energy has distilled common themes that have come up in lists of grand challenges into five distinct areas. Thirty-six Energy Frontier Research Centers are currently funded by the DOE and have foci on one or more of the declared grand challenges.

  1. "A Research and Development Strategy for High Performance Computing", Executive Office of the President, Office of Science and Technology Policy, November 20, 1987 Accessed at
  2. Grand Challenge. (2003). In B. Pfaffenberger, Webster's new World&Trade; Computer Dictionary (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved from
  3. University of Colorado, Boulder’s response to President Obama’s 21st Century Grand Challenges.
  4. About Grand Challenges. (2017) Global Grand Challenges. Accessed at
  5. Funding Opportunities for Grand Challenges. 
  6. Global Grand Challenges.
  7. US Aid Grand Challenges.
  8. Grand Challenges Canada.
  9. US Department of Energy, Research Grand Challenges.
  10. National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges.
  11. Indiana University Grand Challenges.
  12. University of Colorado, Boulder. News on Grand Challenges.
  13. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tickle College of Engineering, Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program.
  14. Office of Science and Technology Policy, 21st Century Grand Challenges.
  15. The challenge of addressing Grand Challenges: A think piece on how innovation can be driven towards the “Grand Challenges” as defined under the prospective European Union Framework Programme Horizon 2020. Stefan Kuhlmann and Arie Rip. University of Twente.
  16. Organizing for Innovation in Complex Innovation Systems. Deborah Dougherty. Innovation Organization & Management, 2017. Volume 19, no. 1. 11-15.
  17. Understanding and Tackling Societal Grand Challenges. Research Collection Li Kong Chian School of Management. George, Gerard and Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Aparna Joshi, Laszlo Tihanyi. Academy of Management Journal. 59, no. 6. 1880-1895. 


The Nobel Prize in Physics 1982
Kenneth G. Wilson

"Kenneth G. Wilson: from quantum chromodynamics to redesigning education"

Kenneth G. Wilson, the Nobel laureate discovered he could further his physics research by computation, and helped develop the now-ubiquitous theme of grand challenges using supercomputing. He also discovered something else: the way we prepare students to face the modern world's challenges, grand or otherwise, needs reengineering.
IEEE Computational Science and Engineering ( Volume: 1, Issue: 4, Winter 1994 )