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Engineering Improvement: Social and Historical Perspectives on the NAE’s “Grand Challenges”

Author(s): Amy E. Slaton

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

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

Keywords: agency | engineering history | Grand Challenges | National Academy of Engineering | progress

The list of engineering "Grand Challenges" lately developed by the National Academy of Engineering enters a long historical tradition of such epically scaled to-do lists, dating back to the profession's U.S. origins in the mid-19th century. The mission statements, codes of ethics, and, later, lists of so-called grand challenges that have issued from engineering societies have served the dual function of directing engineers' work and supporting particular cultural roles for these bodies of experts. Almost all such plans, regardless of period or sponsoring body, have also blended highly practical aims of industrial and infrastructural development with more inchoate projects of societal uplift. The Grand Challenges of the NAE, currently playing a formative role in many engineering organizations and research and teaching settings, extend this lineage, working from a selective and self-confirming view of human welfare. We might bring to the Grand Challenges the type of critical, politically informed analysis that historians and STS scholars have brought to other sites of engineering activity and professionalization, to detect the nature of interests that underlay all such projections of engineering’s role in society. Who is served by the development of different technologies, products, and infrastructures? Who might be harmed? Most fundamentally, the Grand Challenges proceed from the premise that engineering research, construction, invention, and production are to take precedence over their absence, as befits a body dedicated not to the contraction of such enterprises but to their extension. Yet the interests of sustainability, global health, and other areas of human well-being might be best served in certain cases by just such a turning away from engineering. Making explicit the social and historical assumptions of the NAE’s Grand Challenges, and probing the implications of those assumptions for a diverse range of actors and communities, may pave the way for more thoughtful engagement with the humanistic and democratic potential of engineering.
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