2016 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting

Mega-engineering Initiatives & the Grand Challenges for Engineering

52nd National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 9, 2016


It is my privilege to welcome all our members, foreign members, and friends to this year’s annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering. I extend an especially warm welcome to our newly elected members and foreign members and can assure you that this induction day, just like last evening’s dinner, will be one you will remember. And I would be remiss for not extending a special welcome to all the spouses who so graciously support our service to the academy.

Today, I will divide my remarks between the themes of the meeting, mega-engineering initiatives and the academy’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, which is a mega-engineering initiative too.


People have long been inspired by mega-engineering initiatives, whether they involve landing humans on Mars, identifying subatomic particles, or protecting the planet from natural disasters. Mega-engineering initiatives extend the bounds of human capabilities and the services they provide to society. Importantly, they not only solve problems of great importance but also define new limits that become the technical “records to be broken” in the minds of the public and coming generations of engineers, scientists, and others who are dedicated to advancing our world.

This dual role of mega-engineering initiatives through solutions delivered and those inspired has advanced societies throughout history. Countries have relied on this dual role to enhance their national capabilities, advance their competitive strengths, and set their vision and goals for advancements. There was an outpouring of national pride when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, when Charles Lindbergh first solo-piloted an aircraft across the Atlantic, or others erected the tallest building in the world, or created a global communications network allowing everybody to talk to everybody.

Mega-engineering deserves recognition because it shapes our future just as it has our past. Accordingly, public understanding of engineering requires that mega-engineering initiatives be seen as engineering—as creating solutions to problems of people and society. In public reflections on these initiatives, I am puzzled frequently by the absence of appropriate recognition given to the engineering that created them, even though it is usually remarkable and unique.

Plenary Lectures

Today we have three plenary lectures on distinctly different mega-engineering initiatives spanning domains from inside the atom to across the seven seas to human life outside of this world. Ms. Gwynne Shotwell, a mechanical engineer and President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, will speak on the engineering challenges in the SpaceX human mission to Mars. Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, a particle physicist and former Director General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), will speak on the role of engineering in the design and development of, and the conduct of experiments on the Large Hadron Collider that revealed the Higgs boson. And Professor Robert J. Nicholls, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at Southampton University, will speak on the coastal engineering challenges in adapting to sea level rise that are beginning to transform life on the planet. We are fortunate to have these distinguished experts speak to us today, and I thank the many friends who assisted with their recruitment.

Engineering for You: 3rd Video Competition (E4U3)

Not surprisingly, the academy’s third annual video competition has a mega-engineering theme too. The prize-winning 2-minute videos will be shown interspersed in today’s program. The winners are the Grand Prize video, meriting a $25,000 award, plus videos in the following categories that will receive $5,000 each: middle school, secondary, and tertiary school students, and the people’s choice. The awards and the Grand Prize video will be presented at the end of today’s program. We thank ExxonMobil for its generous financial support of the video competition and for its participation on the prize selection committee, which was chaired for the third time by NAE member Robert L. Cook.

Forum: Adaptation to Sea Level Rise

Continuing the theme of mega-engineering initiatives, the 3-hour forum scheduled for tomorrow morning brings together an international panel of experts to address problems posed by sea level rise in different sectors of society: Mr. Bart de Jong, Counselor for Infrastructure and the Environment, Royal Netherlands Embassy; Mr. David Pearce, Consolidated Edison; Adm. Bret J. Muilenburg, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command; Dr. Kathleen D. White, Team Lead of the Institute for Water Resources, Climate and Global Change, US Army Corps of Engineers; and Prof. Robert J. Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, Southampton University. There will be opportunity for the audience to pose questions to the panel, moderated by Mr. Ali Velshi, journalist and frequent moderator of academy panels.


Now I wish to speak about our academy-initiated initiative. Academy-initiated intiatives are distinct from requests for counsel initiated by government agencies or others, which comprise the great majority of the academy’s studies in its capacity as an advisory organization. However, the academy can initiate actions too, as it did with the Grand Challenges for Engineering in 2008. To justify the significant academy focus needed to develop a particular initiative, an initiative must (i) have high potential value to the nation, (ii) have transformational impact potential when it succeeds, and (iii) be appropriate for leadership by the academy. This high bar for an academy initiative constrains choices to those that meet the above conditions. The focus for an academy initiative today must also serve the academy’s five-year strategic plan goals introduced at the 2015 annual meeting. The strategic plan goals are:

  1. Membership Representation – Increase representation in the NAE among business, female, younger, foreign, and underrepresented members
  2. Industry Collaboration – Increase the value of the NAE to industry
  3. Public Understanding – Demonstrate to the public how engineering creates a better quality of life
  4. Ensuring Engineering Talent – Promote and inspire highly competitive engineering talent in the workforce
  5. Global Engagement – Engage globally in support of national interests
  6. Effective Advising – Enhance the effectiveness of advice to the nation

The span of these goals embraces the academy organization and initiatives. Goal 1 primarily addresses the academy organization, while the others guide expectations of academy initiatives during this 5-year period.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering, including the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and the Global Grand Challenges Summits, which I will describe in a moment, provide the right focus for an academy initiative that addresses goals 2–5 and meets the standard for an academy initiative. Because we are increasing attention to this initiative, allow me to summarize briefly the Grand Challenges for Engineering and our related initiatives.

In 2008 an international expert committee convened by the NAE published a report, called Grand Challenges for Engineering, presenting its vision for what engineering needs to accomplish for life on the planet to continue in this century, and the goals that must be satisfied to achieve that vision:

The Vision is  “Continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous.”

The Goals are the                                       Grand Challenges for Engineering.1

Many, if not most, of you have heard about the Grand Challenges for Engineering. Satisfaction of all the 14 Grand Challenges over the planet is required for achievement of the vision. If one or more of the Grand Challenges is not satisfied, the vision as presented above may not be realized unless a compensatory goal or goals is created.  

The vision underpinned by the Grand Challenges is the first engineering vision for the planet that mandates global perspectives. The vision cannot be delivered by a few nations, though a few nations can inspire attention to it. It is greater than a university vision, a company vision, or a national vision. Each Grand Challenge needs to be achieved in all global locales and circumstances. For instance, the challenge to Provide access to clean water is for everyone alive today and for all those yet to be born in this century, including those with contaminated water and those with no water at all. Each challenge is to be fulfilled globally through solutions as needed locally.

Because the vision is about life for all, this is a rare circumstance where people everywhere, across diverse cultures and countries, share in the importance of the Grand Challenges. Communities the world over see their interests and national needs in the Grand Challenges for Engineering, a rare circumstance indeed.

The approaches to solution of the Grand Challenges fall into two groups: An Initiative Group seeks contributions to the solution(s) of one or more of the Grand Challenges, and a Talent Group seeks to prepare a workforce to address global problems like these Grand Challenges. These two groups will play collaborative roles in achievement of the vision. To varying degrees Initiative Group attention is currently being paid to the Grand Challenges in the private sector and government. Targeted efforts with special facilities and substantial financial support particularly stand out. For instance, the Grand Challenge of the Obama Administration to revolutionize understanding of the brain, as it was described in a press release when the Brain Initiative was launched in 2013, will contribute substantially to addressing the Grand Challenge to Reverse-engineer the brain. It received $300 million in federal support this year. The need to develop the Talent Group at scale led to the creation of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program.


In 2009 deans of engineering Thomas Katsouleas, then at Duke University, Yannis Yortsos at USC, and President Richard Miller of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering created a brilliant program to prepare talent among students in every country and culture to undertake problems like the Grand Challenges. Their program requires student competency in five areas not normally found in engineering curriculums to prepare them for Grand Challenge–like problems while providing maximum local flexibility in program design. Each university determines how, and whether, its program students sufficiently achieve these five competencies through their program and experiences. The competencies may be part of the regular academic curriculum or may be arranged otherwise as determined by each student and university. The five competencies are:

  1. Research/creative – Mentored research or project experience related to a Grand Challenge to enhance technical competence
  2. Multidisciplinary – Understanding gained through experience of the multidisciplinary character of implementable and viable Grand Challenge solutions
  3. Business/entrepreneurship – Understanding gained through experience that viable business models are necessary for successful implementation of Grand Challenge solutions
  4. Multicultural – Understanding gained through experience that serious consideration of cultural issues is mandatory for all viable Grand Challenge solutions
  5. Social consciousness – Deepen  social consciousness and motivation to address societal problems, often gained through service learning, because serving people is the vision served by the Grand Challenges

Student engagement is invaluable to achieving the competencies. As Confucius noted in his Analects 25 centuries ago, “I hear and I forget, I read and I remember, I do and I understand.” The Grand Challenges Scholars Program is about “doing.”

In 2015 more than 100 deans of engineering—about 1/3 of all engineering deans in the US—signed a letter to President Obama committing to graduate 20,000 Grand Challenge Scholars within 10 years. The number of committed US deans has increased since then. And Grand Challenges Scholars Programs are under way in Australia, Botswana, China, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Singapore too. In June of this year I presented a plenary lecture on the program to the annual meeting of the Chinese Academy of Engineering to inspire it to join the NAE in promotion of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program globally. I received positive responses about it. Next month I will present the program in a plenary address to 1,500 deans of engineering and others from 70 countries at the annual meeting of the World Engineering Education Forum and the Global Engineering Deans Council in Seoul, South Korea, to further expand interest in the program globally.  In short, interest in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program is increasing nationally and internationally at an accelerating rate.

The attractiveness of the program and its expansion nationally and globally have been driven at the grass-roots level without a centralized organization or financial backing. The support of the academy has been instrumental during this period. But national and global expansion calls for coordination of these grass-roots efforts to support and facilitate the development of existing and new programs, to memorialize and benefit from successful program designs, and to document the influence of the program on its scholars’ interests and careers. This central coordination, data- and information-sharing phase of the program development and evaluation is just under way at the NAE. It will be important for this program and for assessing its value to engineering education.


The Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the US National Academy of Engineering have cosponsored Global Grand Challenges Summits in London in 2013 and in Beijing in 2015, and the third summit, led by the NAE, is scheduled for Washington, DC, next summer, July 18–20, 2017. These summits inspire the vision of the Grand Challenges and highlight the progress on them to the global communities. Plenary speakers present advances on the Grand Challenges to date and student business plan competitions stimulate the next generation’s interest in the Grand Challenges. At the 2017 summit we’re planning for 800 attendees from China, the UK, and the US, with about half of them students from the three countries.

An additional feature that will immediately precede next year’s summit is the inaugural FIRST Global Invitational robotics competition—FIRST, founded by Dean Kamen in 1989, stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. This competition is for young people ages 14 to 18 along with their parents, schools, and mentors, and the goal for the international robotics teams will relate to the Grand Challenges for Engineering. This will be the first reach of the Grand Challenges into this younger, large, global population. Engaging the interest of young people and their communities in the Grand Challenges is important to inspire the future talent needed for their solution and for engineering generally.


The Grand Challenges Scholars Program aligns with the goals of the NAE five-year strategic plan and it also prepares talent for today’s engineering system problems. At the same time, the Grand Challenges are global goals to deliver the vision of “Continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous.” Consequently, the leadership of other national academies and organizations is needed to cultivate contributions to, and engagement in the Grand Challenges in their locales.

The Grand Challenges for Engineering has the structure of a movement more than a project, where inspiration is driven by the power of the idea while the decisions to contribute are made locally and independently. There is no central authority or financial support. Time will tell how far the idea of the Grand Challenges can propagate, but in the meantime, after eight years, attention continues to grow in a direction that can reshape engineering education and mean more to engineering than do the Grand Challenges themselves.

Thank you for your support of the academy as it moves along this transformational path. I hope that you approve of the spirit of this mission and are inspired by the importance and global sweep of this adventure.


1The 14 goals are: Make solar energy economical; 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; Engineer the tools of scientific discovery