As scientists and engineers, what can we achieve that will allow humanity to flourish in this, the 21st century? Thanks to the US National Science Foundation (NSF), we may not have to wait for decades to find out.

The NSF assembled an impressive committee of experts to develop a list of aspirations for engineering in the 21st century. The group announced their 14 grand challenges at the recent AAAS meeting in Boston:

• Make solar energy affordable

• Provide energy from fusion

• Provide access to clean water

• Reverse-engineer the brain

• Advance personalized learning

• Develop carbon sequestration methods

• Restore and improve urban infrastructure

• Advance health informatics

• Engineer the tools of science discovery

• Prevent nuclear terror

• Engineer better medicines

• Manage the nitrogen cycle

• Secure cyberspace

• Enhance virtual reality

As is the way with these things, there is now a public vote for the most important challenge (I wonder what the prize is – is this a new, truly democratic way for allotting research funding?), and I have listed the challenges here according to popularity at time of going to press.

There is a surreal feel to this to-do list. The bold three- and four-word statements, each beginning with an active verb, make them sound simple, immediate tasks to be ticked off in succession like: ‘go home, make dinner, switch off lights, sleep’. Or alternatively, if we're going to make a list like this, why not include ‘end poverty, banish injustice, establish world peace’?

But I guess that's the point – we should have high aims for engineering. And we can probably mark out the first steps and tasks towards some of these targets already, making them more manageable. Some are certainly more achievable than others: I'd rate ‘Make solar energy affordable’ as more likely to happen sooner than ‘Provide energy from fusion’. You could also argue that some are more to do with finding the organizational, political, and financial means than truly novel engineering solutions (provide access to clean water, restore and improve urban infrastructure). And isn't ‘Advance personalized learning’ down to your own philosophy on provision of education?

I'm sure we can all point to challenges missing from the NSF's list (crops to withstand droughts; sustainable hydrogen production, storage, and use; cheap space travel; shopping trolleys that travel in a straight line). But I do believe it's important to think about the brighter future we are working towards. We can all list achievements of the past, why not have a clear picture of how we can change the world for the better?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(08)70036-1