The imperfect process of identifying grand challenges

For many people, one of the advantages of being an early career academic is that one’s best work is yet to come (it’s a lot like the reason we miss our childhood days!). Such a person has some incentive to carefully think about what to work on. The easy answer, as my advisor would often say, is to look for a question that is deep and important but is not currently being studied by many people. In other words, identify what is going to become important in future and play a role in ushering that in. Sounds simple and logical. If you are just entering the scientific arena, there is no sense in picking a corner of it that is already crowded with a number of entrenched heavyweights… instead, look for the untapped goldmine. The problem – how does one know where that might be?

A couple of weekends back, I was idly pondering this while clearing out some old magazines. I was struck by the abundance of listings of grand challenges. Every scientific magazine of any repute routinely compiles challenges and questions that are supposed to change the world. Conferences have workshops with the same theme. However, for the most part, the result is rather disappointing and not sufficiently stimulating. Typically, the articles are just propaganda – mildly edited versions of the authors’ research summary. Of course, a successful scientist should believe that her work matters. But it is hard to believe that the most important questions of tomorrow are nothing more than a natural follow-on to the nearly solved (at least, conceptually) problems of the day.

I do think that these lists should be compiled, but a different protocol may be called for. I have one suggestion – people should be asked to identify the single most important question or area that they are not personally involved with and have no vested interest in (perhaps with an editor acting as the devil’s advocate and asking “are you just saying that because…?”). One might argue that the result would not be authoritative unless the authors restrict themselves to problems with personal knowledge and experience. But then, a scientist has to closely follow at least a slightly larger body of work than the one she contributes to! If compiled in the right spirit, the resulting list might inspire new ideas rather than just felicitating old ones.

In the end, creativity and innovation are personal responsibilities (and privileges) that should not be outsourced… Even so, if someone is going to the trouble of compiling a list, isn’t it worthwhile to make it much more stimulating than the stuff that is currently out there?


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