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Gil Omenn: 'Grand Challenges' Stress Hope, Curiosity

Past AAAS President Gil Omenn and his wife Martha Darling have endowed a new AAAS lecture series, which Omenn kicked off at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy by exploring the need for "aspirational and inspirational" research challenges.

The Gilbert S. Omenn Grand Challenges Address was established to identify "particularly challenging needs and goals at the intersection of science and society."

Building on Omenn's Presidential Address at the 2006 AAAS Annual Meeting and its publication in Science, the new lecture series should help to "energize not only the scientific and engineering community, but also students, journalists, the public, and their elected representatives, to develop a sense of the possibilities, an appreciation of risks, and an urgent commitment to accelerate progress," he said.

"Go to seminars outside of your narrow focus. Learn about new ideas and technologies. Add them to the edges of your current research."

Gil Omenn
Gil Omenn | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

On 30 April, Omenn set the stage for future presentations by reviewing the use of grand challenges — identified by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, The Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the United Nations, and U.S. federal agencies — to set research priorities.

Grand challenges in science and technology should be both "aspirational and inspirational," with measurable goals, said Omenn, who is professor of computational medicine & bioinformatics, internal medicine, human genetics, and public health at the University of Michigan. He cited the late Robert F. Kennedy, who once said: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" In evaluating the challenges facing society, Omenn said, researchers should focus on Kennedy's second question.

Science-based challenges tend to fit into three broad categories, he added: First, grand challenges may be specific to particular scientific or engineering fields, as when mathematician David Hilbert in 1900 identified 23 "puzzles" that have energized the field for a century. Second, multidisciplinary research and development programs include the Apollo Project and the Mars Rover mission, as well as The Gates Foundation's investment in solutions for global health and development — from tuberculosis and dengue fever, to child survival, nutrition, and clean water. Beginning in 2005 with 43 research projects, the foundation's Grand Challenges program has now awarded 1,689 research grants across 80 countries, Omenn noted. The third category of grand challenges embraces contributions of science and technology to broad societal needs for economic development, education, climate change, and civil society.

The United Nations’ new sustainable development goals, described 19 January by The Guardian, outline 17 global grand challenges, from poverty to ecosystem conservation. (View The Guardian's interactive.)

Identifying urgent scientific priorities can help to improve the impact of research and development, ensuring that limited funding is well spent, AAAS CEO Rush Holt said in introducing Omenn at the S&T Policy Forum. He emphasized, however, that grand scientific challenges should never be misused to limit scientific curiosity. "If you look at the [U.S.] science research budget, and what is funded — what the appropriations go to — it is not, as a physicist might use the word, `coherent,'" said Holt, a physicist and former Congressman. "It would help, I think, if we had a little more coherence in what we did, not to restrict the freedom of inquiry … but with a view toward what would have real impact."

Omenn's distinguished career has encompassed helping to set research priorities: He was a key staffer for the Interagency group charged by President Nixon to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. In 1973, that group released The Nation's Energy Future, which identified five major priorities, emphasizing the need for enhanced efficiency from all fuels.

Among the other grand challenges cited by Omenn were Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, by Project 2061, the science-education reform initiative of AAAS; the National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research; the National Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm; and the United Nations' eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015, now updated to include 17 priorities, in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

The Nation's Energy Future described five key priorities. | Gil Omenn

Asked about Congressional support for research and development, Omenn noted the influence of "champions who are a step or two removed from the funding." As an example, he commended Norman R. Augustine, a U.S. aerospace business leader who chaired the influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which called for sustained investment in STEM education and basic research to bolster America's ability to compete in the global economy.

In closing, Omenn urged everyone in the scientific community to remain curious and optimistic. "Curiosity coupled with bold, measurable goals is often very productive," he said. "Go to seminars outside of your narrow focus. Learn about new ideas and technologies. Add them to the edges of your current research. That is a good way to enhance your career and contribute to a brighter future for all."


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs

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