The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 9th, 2015
When President Obama called for a $215-million "precision medicine
initiative" in his State of the Union speech last month, he was behaving
very much like a politician of his times. This was mission-driven
research, squarely aimed at solving society’s ills—in this case, by
tailoring cures to individuals. This was not science for the sake of
discovery—the "endless frontier,"
as the architect of U.S. science policy after World War II, Vannevar
Bush, termed it. This was utilitarian. There was a promise of applied
Over the past decade, these promises have repeatedly been made in the name of "grand challenges." Often invoking the Apollo program,
philanthropies and governments have urged researchers to pursue
scientific solutions to specific societal problems. The United States,
Canada, India, and Brazil have all embraced grand challenges, and the
European Union has made solving "societal challenges" a pillar of its
research agenda. Challenges abound.