• Home

Creating Scientific Ambassadors

bridges vol. 20, December 2008 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Guruprasad Madhavan , Barbara Oakley , and Luis Kun

{enclose Vol20_ScientificAmbassadors.mp3}

Guruprasad Madhavan
Barbara Oakley
Luis Kun

When you go to the grocery store, you often carry a list with you so that you'll be sure to get the important things you really need.  
Rice?  Check.  
Onions?  Check.  
Chocolate ice cream?  If you're a chocoholic, you might check that last one twice.  
We might summarize this last as the prime rule of lists:  Don't leave out the most important items.  After all, what is a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips?  Or beef stew without the beef?

It's odd, but running a civilization can sometimes seem a little like running to the grocery store.  People - and organizations, for that matter - just love to make lists.  The following are a few examples:

Nine years ago the United Nations put together a list of the Millennium Development Goals to combat major issues such as poverty, illiteracy, infectious diseases, and environmental sustainability, as shown in the following table:

 The Millennium Development Goals
The following eight Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved by 2015 in response to the world's main development challenges. The Goals are drawn from the actions and targets contained in the Millennium Declaration that was adopted by 189 nations - and signed by 147 heads of state and governments during the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000. They break down into:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

Source: The UN Millennium Development Goals
URL: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} In 2003, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came up with a list of 14 Grand Challenges in Global Health, which identified the following issues:

Grand Challenges in Global Health   
Goal 1: Improve childhood vaccines
Grand Challenge 1: Create effective single-dose vaccines
Grand Challenge 2: Prepare vaccines that do not require refrigeration
Grand Challenge 3: Develop needle-free vaccine delivery systems.

Goal 2: Create new vaccines
Grand Challenge 4: Devise testing systems for new vaccines
Grand Challenge 5: Design antigens for protective immunity
Grand Challenge 6: Learn about immunological responses.

Goal 3: Control insects that transmit agents of disease
Grand Challenge 7: Develop genetic strategy to control insects
Grand Challenge 8: Develop chemical strategy to control insects.

Goal 4: Improve nutrition to promote health         
Grand Challenge 9: Create a nutrient-rich staple plant species.

Goal 5: Improve drug treatment of infectious diseases
Grand Challenge 10: Find drugs and delivery systems to limit drug resistance.

Goal 6: Cure latent and chronic infection
Grand Challenge 11: Create therapies that can cure latent infection
Grand Challenge 12: Create immunological methods to cure latent infection.

Goal 7: Measure health status accurately and economically in developing countries
Grand Challenge 13: Develop technologies to assess population health
Grand Challenge 14: Develop versatile diagnostic tools.  

Source: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
URL: http://www.gcgh.org/

These Grand Challenges were soon modified and expanded by the Oxford Health Alliance:

Grand Challenges in Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases
Goal 1: Raise public and political awareness
Grand Challenge 1: Raise the political priority of non-communicable disease
Grand Challenge 2: Promote healthy lifestyle and consumption choices through effective education and public engagement
Grand Challenge 3: Package compelling and valid information to foster widespread, sustained, and accurate media coverage, and thereby improve awareness of economic, social, and public health impacts.

Goal 2: Enhance economic, legal and environmental policies
Grand Challenge 4: Study and address the impact of government spending and taxation on health
Grand Challenge 5: Develop and implement local, national and international policies and trade agreements, including regulatory restraints, to discourage the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy foods
Grand Challenge 6: Study and address the impacts of poor health on economic output and productivity.

Goal 3: Modify risk factors
Grand Challenge 7: Deploy universally measures proven to reduce tobacco use and boost resources to implement the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
Grand Challenge 8: Increase the availability and consumption of healthy food
Grand Challenge 9: Promote lifelong physical activity
Grand Challenge 10: Better understand environmental and cultural factors that change behavior.

Goal 4: Engage businesses and community
Grand Challenge 11: Make business a key partner in promoting health and preventing disease
Grand Challenge 12: Develop and monitor codes of responsible conduct with the food, beverage, and restaurant industries
Grand Challenge 13: Empower community resources such as voluntary and faith-based organizations.

Goal 5: Mitigate health impacts of poverty and urbanization
Grand Challenge 14: Study and address how poverty increases risk factors
Grand Challenge 15: Study and address the links between the built environment, urbanization and chronic non-communicable disease.

Goal 6: Reorient health systems
Grand Challenge 16: Allocate resources within health systems based on burden of disease
Grand Challenge 17: Move health professional training and practice towards prevention
Grand Challenge 18: Increase number and skills of professionals who prevent, treat, and manage chronic non-communicable diseases, especially in developing countries
Grand Challenge 19: Build health systems that integrate screening and prevention within health delivery
Grand Challenge 20: Increase access to medications to prevent complications of chronic non-communicable disease.

Source: The Oxford Health Alliance
URL: http://www.oxha.org/initiatives/grand_challenges

Similarly, in February 2008, an expert panel of the US National Academy of Engineering put forth a list containing 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century:

The Grand Challenges for Engineering 
Grand Challenge 1: Make solar energy economical
Grand Challenge 2: Provide energy from fusion
Grand Challenge 3: Develop carbon sequestration methods
Grand Challenge 4: Manage the nitrogen cycle
Grand Challenge 5: Provide access to clean water
Grand Challenge 6: Restore and improve urban infrastructure
Grand Challenge 7: Advance health informatics
Grand Challenge 8: Engineer better medicines
Grand Challenge 9: Reverse-engineer the brain
Grand Challenge 10: Prevent nuclear terror
Grand Challenge 11: Secure cyberspace
Grand Challenge 12: Enhance virtual reality
Grand Challenge 13: Advance personalized learning
Grand Challenge 14: Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
Source: National Academy of Engineering of the US National Academies
URL: http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/

The challenges on all these lists sweep across broad themes of sustainability, vulnerability, health, and quality of life. Some of the world's most brilliant minds have helped weave together these self-improvement shopping lists for civilization - it will take all our efforts to meet the formidable challenges they describe.

But what if the lists are missing a challenge?  

Indeed, what if the challenge that's missing is like the missing beef in the beef stew - something so important that you'll never make the beef stew without it, even if you have all the other ingredients?   

If a challenge is missing, you might wonder what it could be. After all, the grand challenge and development goals described above look comprehensive. More than that, we can find clear evidence that many approaches already exist to help meet those challenges and goals. The March/April 2008 issue of the Technology Review, for example, has many examples that highlight our progress. Magnetic resonance-coupled wireless power, plug-in hybrids, water-activated fuel cell generators, and cellulose enzymes are a few of the many approaches to dealing with our energy crisis. Also reviewed are emerging innovations in the area of personalized medicine, bionic eyes, and remote-controlled drug delivery mechanisms, portraying our relentless advances in engineering human health. From neural "connectomics" to virtual social networks, we are now going beyond improving learning mechanisms to reverse-engineering our brains. Besides many lifestyle technologies, we also see social engineering entrepreneurs who are developing "lifeline" technologies, including low-cost water management systems, customized irrigation methods, arsenic removers, inexpensive medical diagnostics and therapeutics, and even making possible $100 residential units for the poor in the developing world. 

Opportunities for Career Development in Science and Engineering
1.    Academia - University, Teaching Colleges, and Schools
2.    Industry - Research, Development, and Management
3.    Independent Research Firms and Think Tanks
4.    Research and Development in the Public Sector
5.    Medicine and Public Health
6.    Law - Regulatory Affairs, Intellectual Property, and Expert       Witness  Litigation
7.    Technology Transfer
8.     Entrepreneurship - Commercial and Social
9.     Finance and Investment Banking
10.    Science, Technology, and Educational Policy
11.    Forensic Sciences
12.    Technology and Management Consulting
13.    Energy
14.    Politics and Legislation
15.    Public Relations
16.    Marketing and Sales
17.    Economics
18.    Sports Engineering
19.    Creative Writing - Books, Journalism, Communication, and         Outreach
20.    Informatics and Information Technology
21.    Defense Sector
22.    Environmental Sector
23.    Food and Agricultural Sector
24.    Social Sciences
25.    Imagineering® and Entertainment
26.    Fashion Design
Adapted from Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology edited by G. Madhavan, B. Oakley, and L. Kun, Springer 2008.

These are noteworthy feats indeed.  But the record also shows a curious gap: We have not been very impressive at communicating the broad impact of our profession to other disciplines - and to society as a whole. Therefore, we believe that one of the most important, but overlooked, grand challenges is to recognize the importance of continually creating ambassadors to represent science and engineering to a broader audience.

In other words, it is incumbent upon us, as a technology-based civilization, to help train individuals who can serve as envoys who can apply, translate, and communicate science and engineering to society as a whole. Although ultimately we all need to be messengers of our profession, one crucial way to stimulate the creation of such ambassadors is to encourage ourselves and, more importantly, the younger generation to use their training in science and engineering to move beyond the classical career mold through which scientists and engineers are, to some extent, sidetracked into civilization's supporting roles. Instead, by using our unique background and expertise to move into the landscape of non-traditional careers (more than two dozen are listed in the sidebar on the left), we can not only bring our scientific and engineering competence to other professions, but also become innovative impresarios in our own profession.

Taking non-traditional career pathways yields many additional benefits. Most notable among them is the opportunity to capitalize on newer resources and unforeseen prospects outside of science and engineering. Noted scientific ambassador President Emeritus of the US National Academy of Sciences, and Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, Bruce Alberts, in his introduction to our recent book Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, echoes that belief:

[W]e must work on moving young people with scientific and technical expertise into a range of careers throughout general society. Scientific thinking provides clear benefits at all levels of society, and it promotes common understanding where other modes of communication might fail. Whether in Washington or Africa, it is not enough ... to produce timely reports with sound recommendations - it is also crucial that there be people in the government, the media, and other positions in society with the scientific and technological background needed to interpret and adapt the advice for nation[s]. My conclusion: to effectively spread science and technology throughout our societies, we must also spread scientists and technologists. By this I mean that we will need to mount an intensive effort to make it possible for scientifically and technically trained people to move into a broad range of relevant professions, not only those that we normally define as ‘science' or ‘engineering.'    

He adds force to this message in his recent editorials for Science :

Scientists [and engineers] in non-traditional careers are invaluable as two-way interpreters: people who can readily bring the benefits of scientific analysis to their institution or profession, as well as help traditional scientists better understand how their science might contribute in new ways. Even a single such individual can make a huge difference.  (p.289, April 18, 2008)

[These people] will form the bridges needed for science to affect a wider society. We should therefore be generating new programs to support such career transitions, while cheering [those] who pursue them. (p.155, April 11, 2008)

About the authors: Guruprasad Madhavan is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at State University of New York, Binghamton, New York, and was a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies' Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy, Washington, DC. Barbara Oakley is an associate professor of systems engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan; and Luis Kun is a senior research professor of homeland security at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.

The authors are co-editors of Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, Springer, 2008.

[This article previously appeared under the title "The Missing Grand Challenge" in Mechanical Engineering, Vol 130, No. 6, June 2008, and is reprinted with the permission of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.]


Print Email