This week a representative from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) came to our university to talk about Grand Challenges. These are big research questions that the U.S. government considers to be difficult or long term, that usually require university level research in addition to corporate research, and which can have a big impact on society or lots of great spin-off benefits.
In a PowerPoint presentation we learned of such Grand Challenges are the self-driving car (which started at universities, but which Google has now taken over — the hope is to save many lives each year), sequencing the human genome (which was largely successful), and an inexpensive implementation of the “Tricorder” — the hand-held device on Star Trek that can diagnose diseases. Believe it or not, people are actively working on a real version of that.
A canonical example of a Grand Challenge was the MoonShot — John F. Kennedy’s challenge in May 1961 to land a human being on the moon before the decade was out. Many useful spinoff technologies were developed during the eight years it took to realize that goal.
A number of such challenges were listed, and one in particular caught my eye: The “SunShot”. Eventually we learned that this was a program to develop truly practical next generation photovoltaic solar power.
Unfortunately, I saw the word “SunShot” on the PowerPoint slide well before I heard this explanation. So for several minutes I found it very difficult to concentrate on anything else.
This is because I was trying to work out in my head what seemed like an insoluble problem: How were they going to land a person on the Sun?