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Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Time Event
11:21a
Engineering Challenges for the 21st Century?
In a recent press release:
http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111158&org=NSF&from=news

the National Science Foundation said: "A diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the National Science Foundation (NSF), announced 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century that, if met, would improve how we live."

I read this article with considerable interest, but was rather flummoxed by some of the proposals, some of which do not strike me as being "engineering" problems, and some so vague as to be meaningless. The list (with my notes)is:

below:

* Make solar energy affordable

* Provide energy from fusion

* Develop carbon sequestration methods

So far, so good. Reasonable goals that involve the solution to practical problems.

* Manage the nitrogen cycle

?? As far as I know, the "nitrogen cycle" was something that happened in nature. What is the issue with "managing" it?

* Provide access to clean water

* Restore and improve urban infrastructure

OK, another pair that involve applying improved technology to concrete problems.

* Advance health informatics

Again, ?? "Informatics" is a new buzzword to me. Per Wilipedia, "Informatics includes the science of information, the practice of information processing, and the engineering of information systems. Informatics studies the structure, behavior, and interactions of natural and artificial systems that store, process and communicate information. It also develops its own conceptual and theoretical foundations. Since computers, individuals and organizations all process information, informatics has computational, cognitive and social aspects, including study of the social impact of information technologies.

Used as a compound, in conjunction with the name of a discipline, as in medical informatics, bioinformatics, etc., it denotes the specialization of informatics to the management and processing of data, information and knowledge in the named discipline, and the incorporation of informatic concepts and theories to enrich the other discipline; it has a similar relationship to library science."

So, are they saying, improve health education? Improve data sharing? Pretty vague and I'm not sure how this is an engineering problem.


* Engineer better medicines

Better how? When you talk of engineering in relation to medicine, I think of drug production and delivery systems. Development of new "medicines" would be the task of medical scientific research, wouldn't it?

* Reverse-engineer the brain

Another one blurring the distinction between what I am used to thinking of as "research" and "engineering."

* Prevent nuclear terror

OK, how is this an enginnering problem, unless someone is going to invent personal radiation and blast-proof force fields? Nuclear disarmament is a political issue, and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists is a combined political/security/law-enforcement task.

* Secure cyberspace

* Enhance virtual reality

OK, two more do-able jobs, enhancing the VR probably more so than securing cyberspace.

* Advance personalized learning

Pretty vague goal here. Perhaps after they have reverse-engineered the brain they will be able to provide the neural linkage to deliver advanced informatics as an enhanced virtual reality experience in secure cyberspace?

* Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

And this one strikes me as the vaguest of all. Of course engineers build the tools for scientific discovery. When the particle physicist says, "I need a left-handed boson sieve," or something like that, the engineers figure out how to make it, but this is an ongoing process and not some kind of single great project in the same way that creating a viable fusion energy source would be.

Over all, I give the list a C+ for fuzzy thinking: not what I want to get from a comittee of high-powered experts--.

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