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Note to Self: Save Humanity (A Social and Cultural History of the "Grand Challenges")

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Ethical Perspectives on the Grand Challenges of Engineering

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1104.1 - 22.1104.15



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Paper Authors


Amy E. Slaton Drexel University

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Amy E. Slaton is an associate professor of history at Drexel University and a visiting associate professor at Haverford College. She received her Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and has written on the history of standards and instrumentation in materials science, engineering and the building trades. Her most recent book , Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010), traces American ideas about race and technical aptitude since 1940. Current projects include the blog, and a study, with sociologist Mary Ebeling, of economic equity in nanotechnology training and employment. She is also writing on distributions of blame between workers and materials for failures in contemporary building technologies, as economies of scale and automation continue their long incursion on the labor of commercial construction.

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Note to Self: Save Humanity (A Social and Cultural History of the "Grand Challenges")The Grand Challenges lately developed by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE, 2010)enter a long historical tradition of such epically scaled "to-do" lists. As early as the 1850s, as thefirst formal organizations of American engineers took shape, the individuals involved sought toproject long-term goals and professional guidelines for their groups. The mission statements,codes of ethics, and, later, lists of so-called grand challenges that have issued from engineeringsocieties have served the dual function of directing engineers' work and supporting particularcultural roles for these bodies of experts. Almost all such plans, regardless of period orsponsoring body, have also blended highly practical aims of industrial and infrastructuraldevelopment and more inchoate projects of societal uplift. The Grand Challenges of the NAE,currently playing a formative role in many engineering organizations and research and teachingsettings, extend this lineage. Their integration of economic and productive goals with explicitideals of social and cultural welfare derives from historical precedents described in this paper.Significantly, the NAE’s Grand Challenges, as was the case with earlier examples of such lists,forward some ideas of human betterment and not others in their program of “driving the advanceof human civilization.” We might bring to the Grand Challenges the type of critical, politicallyinformed analysis that historians have brought to other sites of engineering activity andprofessionalization, to detect the nature of interests that underlay all such projections ofengineering’s role in society. If we no longer assume that American and European engineers canbest plan the civil infrastructures of developing nations, or that men are better suited for technicalleadership roles than women, as the ethical codes of western engineering societies once claimed,we may also ask what priorities and social inequities remain unexamined in today’s missionstatements. For example, in the Grand Challenges, roadway maintenance is granted equivalencewith the engineering of bicycle and walking infrastructure rather than subordinated to those moreenvironmentally sustainable alternatives (“Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure”). Thegenetic engineering of “personalized medicine” is presumed to carry no insurmountable risks topatient privacy, yet the current political influence of insurers who might profit from patients’genetic data is not addressed (“Engineer Better Medicines”).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 abody dedicated not to the contraction of such enterprises but to their extension. Yet the interestsof sustainability, global health, and other areas of human well-being might be best served incertain cases by just such a turning away from engineering. By making explicit the social andhistorical assumptions of the NAE’s Grand Challenges, and probing the implications of thoseassumptions for a diverse range of actors and communities, we may pave the way for morethoughtful engagement with the humanistic and democratic potential of engineering.ReferencesNational Academy of Engineering (NAE). 2010. "Grand Challenges for Engineering." Available at Accessed 10 October 2010.

Slaton, A. E. (2011, June), Note to Self: Save Humanity (A Social and Cultural History of the "Grand Challenges") Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18812

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