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The Unbalanced Equation: Technical Opportunities and Social Barriers in the NAE Grand Challenges and Beyond

Author(s): Dean Nieusma | Xiaofeng Tang

Journal: International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace
ISSN 1927-9434

Volume: 1;
Issue: 2;
Date: 2012;
Original page

Keywords: boundary work | Grand Challenges | interdisciplinary collaboration | National Academy of Engineering | sociotechnical practice | technical-social division | textual analysis

The US National Academy of Engineering’s 2008 report, Grand Challenges for Engineering, puts forward a provocative vision of future civilization and engineering’s role in it. Notably, the report signals a trend in engineering toward more explicit and direct engagement with enduring, complex social problems, offering intriguing opportunities for exploring the relationship between engineering and questions of social justice. This paper makes one such exploration by analyzing the report’s explicit framings of engineering-for-social-problem-solving and the implicit assumptions underlying such framings. It shows how the report frames the non-technical factors as external to—and often barriers for—engineering. In contrast, technical challenges, even immense ones, are framed as wholly within engineering’s dominion and as opportunities for both engineering and human civilization as a whole. The paper argues that Grand Challenges signals contemporary tensions in the profession as it seeks an expansive domain of influence and relevance while at the same time narrowly circumscribing what engineers should be accountable for knowing and doing.
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