Thursday, April 28, 2011

Towards Grand Challenges – why not an SH Prize for Secular Humanist Challenges?

There are lots of big challenges out there for society to wrestle with. Some such as in the energy, development and health care are well recognized and indeed fall under the rubric of Grand Challenges with prizes. So far as I know we have none in the secular humanist domain, but perhaps we should.

Calling out "grand challenges" to stimulate progress isn't new. Some old paradoxes like squaring the circle might qualify, but recent challenges have largely been less philosophical and more technical. The British government offered the equivalent of about $12 million in 1714 to solve their Navy’s problem: How could British ships calculate their longitude location which allowed avoid shipwrecks & calculating how far east or west they were from home. Many scientists of the day attacked the problem, but it was solved by a humble, self-taught watchmaker named John Harrison.

The first modern grand challenge was pretty intellectual and introduced over a century ago by mathematician David Hilbert. At a conference in 1900, Hilbert asked a colleague what would be a compelling presentation topic who suggested that he “look into the future and compile a list of problems on which mathematicians should test themselves during the coming century.” Hilbert issued 23 challenges which were grand in mathematical concepts and represented problem which long resisted solution, and whose solution is expected to have some real consequence. The challenge inspired a generation of mathematicians with generally successful results - nearly all of his challenges have now been solved.

The success of Hilbert’s challenge has spawned several grand challenges over the last few years and they cross many disciplines. A modern grand challenges looks at specific critical barrier that, if removed, would help solve an important problem in the world. In October 2004 Space Ship One was the first privately funded spacecraft ever to reach sub-orbit nearly 70 miles above Earth. The Ansari X spaceflight Prize paid out $10 million to the first privately-financed team to fly a spaceship capable of carrying 3 people to 100km twice in 2 weeks. In 2005, "Stanley," a Volkswagen modified by Stanford University students, survived 130 miles of desert driving without a human driver. It was a robot navigating the rough terrain guided by computer programs and sensors. The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) prize for robotic vehicles paid $2 million in public money.

The success of the X prize for “space exploration” has launched other Prize Groups including a general Exploration, Energy & Environment, Education &
Global Development. These represent movement from single challenge prizes to whole lists of grand challenges. One of them was developed by the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. They framed the problem in a way that I think many secularists would agree with:

“As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate. Old and new threats to personal and public health demand more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention. And products and processes that enhance the joy of living remain a top priority of engineering innovation, as they have been since the taming of fire and the invention of the wheel.

In each of these broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living — specific grand challenges await engineering solutions.”

Among the many challenges they list are to manage the nitrogen cycle, provide affordable clean water and reverse engineer the brain. Many efforts have picked up on Grand Challenges that bring focus and energy to defining and addressing environmental and global health issues. Such global problems have supports from large scale donors such as the Gates Foundation which as a special Grand Challenges Initiatives ( Among other things this has increased funding for research on diseases that affect the world's poor. One goal is to develop superior diagnostic tools, prevention strategies, and interventions to counter the debilitating impact of these diseases.

Factors that go into making for successful grand challenges has also been studied. McKinsey & Co.’s analysis of the promise of philanthropic prizes improve current prizes and stimulate effective future use by developing a number of simple frameworks and compiling useful lessons for sponsors is detailed in their article “And the winner is..”

A summary graphic from their report is shown below:

And now there are even University programs to support such broad work. Princeton University, for example, has a program to train people on global scale problems with scientific, technological and public policy dimensions. One example is energy problems which have a financial dimension but also confronts climate change science, the management of fossil-fuel carbon, the expansion of non-fossil energy sources, and other environmental impacts of the various energy systems. Confronting infectious disease around the globe is another complex challenge that has genetic, interdisciplinary epidemiology and modern medicine dimensions, but also demands community support and environmental action. To master these problems one needs integrating knowledge from a variety of disciplines including biology, engineering, the social sciences, ethics and public policy. See

There are many things that I like about the grand challenge prizes. They are highly leveraged and efficient so that $X often sparks contestants into an aggregate $10X or more effort. In some cases it helps spawn a new industry. And it is often not about one technology. It’s more about transforming the way humanity as whole addresses some of our greatest challenges.

I am particularly inspired by some bold efforts in Europe to bring together hundreds of the best scientists for 10 year projects to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to such as financial activity (see FuturICT flagship proposal - Projects like FuturICT flagship hope to “produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict.”

Which makes me wonder if we will ever have a Secular Humanist Grand Challenge. Certainly the current efforts on education and environment are things that humanists can support. But might there be a place for a very specific challenge that we could agree would help address our challenges. One thought is to have something like the Humanipedia - The Free Encyclopedia for New Humanists! ( That site seems to be an idea that hasn’t been carried through. It just created a place for organizations that work on “new humanism” to list their websites. I can imagine a more ambitious effort to create a real, online secular encyclopedia like Wikipedia. It might be a great educational tool for community. It does raise the question of who would fund it. Perhaps the right prize might launch it.

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