Harnessing the power of the sun – both by commercialising affordable solar energy and making nuclear fusion work – are top of a list of 14 challenges drawn up by the world’s leading engineers and due to be published tomorrow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in Boston.

In a year-long exercise, involving the world’s leading technological thinkers, the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) set out to identify the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. Inspired by challenges from luminaries such as former US President Jimmy Carter (who trained as a naval engineer) and Disney/Pixar President Ed Catmull, the project received submissions from over 40 countries, including the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. The NAE is inviting the public to vote on the most important Challenges via its website at www.engineeringchallenges.org

Igor Aleksander, Professor of Neural Systems Engineering at Imperial College London and a Fellow of the UK Academy, said "The document once and for all puts to rest the notion that engineers are the technicians who do the muscle work on the brilliantdiscoveries of scientists. No, engineers have a science of their own: they synthesise what is known in science and deal with the enormous complexity ofprocesses and products that benefit mankind. I was glad to see that my own area of addressing the brain as the most complex machine on earth may reduce the increasing exposure of mankind to the darkness and despair of mental deterioration in old age."

Sir Duncan Michael, who chaired the group that prepared the Royal Academy of Engineering’s submission to Grand Challenges, says “I would have liked to see the NAE giving a higher priority to tackling carbon dioxide emissions and reducing overall energy consumption, though the contribution of nitrogen oxides is recognised.There is no need, other than political, to struggle over oxide gases – as engineers our role is to do something.The correlation of high carbon dioxide production with global warming is sufficiently high that engineers would be negligent not to act right now.”

Royal Academy of Engineering Past President Lord Broers was on the international Committee for Grand Challenges. “The vital role that engineering will play in the future of everyone’s lives is dramatically illustrated by the Grand Challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering’s Committee,” he says. “The Challenges address issues of sustainability, health, vulnerability and joy of living and success or failure in meeting them will not only determine whether we are going to survive and lead healthy lives, but how much we are going to enjoy our lives.”

Notes for editors

  1. The Committee did not attempt to be comprehensive (they are obviously not mentioning every challenge that needs to be done), nor did they want to be too specific about particular approaches. Thefinal choices are challenges that the committee believes are critical to four key areas -- sustainability, health, vulnerability, joy of living -- and could be realistically addressed (they are doable, not "pie in the sky") in the coming years (by the end of this century, at the outside... some, it could be argued, MUST happenmuch sooner). The committee feels these challenges are "game changers"... success with any one of them would dramatically improve life on Earth.
  2. The full list of Grand Challenges is:
    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
    Engineer the Tools for Scientific Discovery
  3. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering

Tel. 020 7766 0636