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Remarks by Dr. Rajiv Shah from the National Academy of Engineering Global Grand Challenges Summit

As delivered at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, July 19, 2017.

Good morning. Thank you, Ali [Velshi], for that very warm introduction. I was telling Ali backstage that I travel a lot to places around the world, particularly in the developing world, and have for years been watching his pieces and segments with real admiration, so I appreciate being here with him. And I certainly am excited to be here with all of you.

It is wonderful to be together with a group that is so optimistic and aspirational about what we can do to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. I got to know the mindset and the thinking of an engineer in my childhood. My father was an engineer for Ford Motor Company for quite a long time, and before that with great pride served as an engineer as part of the Apollo program here in the United States.

I grew up in suburban Detroit, and all the kids I went to school with had families and parents who worked at Ford, GM, or Chrysler at the time. And so I just assumed it was totally normal in your middle school, 7th grade coursework, to be taking pre-engineering and automotive engineering courses. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized all these other kids that came from other parts of the country didn’t know anything about pre-engineering and drafting, and had never gotten that early in their education.

But this upbringing instilled in me a deep appreciation for the vital role of science and technology – not only to create further commercial progress, but to really solve tough public interest challenges and problems. And, as you have said in the kind of preamble to your 14 grand challenges that are the core purpose of this gathering: “Throughout human history, engineering has driven the advance of civilization.” And that in fact is true.

I not only learned this growing up, but I have seen it time and again in my 20 years of really being part of a global fight to end extreme poverty and extreme suffering around the world. I’ve seen tremendous examples that have led me to conclude that science, technology, and innovation are in fact what bend the curve of progress – what makes it possible to imagine children no longer having to perish before their fifth birthday, or go to bed hungry at night. And by solving these problems, you are not only tackling specific issues, but you’re frankly changing our frame of mind about what we as a community are able to achieve together in this world.

I know firsthand the good that can happen when government in particular is a strong leader in promoting science and engineering for the public interest. It’s been a defining characteristic of American competitiveness, and a key asset we have all leveraged in solving global problems.

And frankly, although we’re not seeing that kind of leadership today, in our government, the power of science and engineering was readily apparent to me when I ran the U.S. Agency for International Development, America’s premier global development and humanitarian institution. Sometimes I saw it work well, and sometimes not, but when it did, I know that we changed people’s lives in meaningful, permanent ways.

In 2010, when a USAID-funded trial at a South African HIV/AIDS research lab gave women a new way to reduce HIV transmission, by inventing and validating new microbicidal gels, I knew we were making a difference in the lives of millions of people.

In 2011, when we used data science and real-time analytics to go into markets in Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa, I knew we were saving tens of thousands of lives during the disastrous famine that took place in that time and in that place.

And in 2014, in the midst of the Ebola crisis, when we right here in Washington and across this country were fearful of what that disease might end up doing to our communities at home, our folks were identifying cases, improving laboratory diagnostics in the field in West Africa, redesigning protective equipment suits for Ebola first responders so they could be safer as they carried out their tasks – and all of those engineering and scientific advances helped to wipe Ebola off the face of West Africa and certainly off our radar screens here at home.

So I’ve seen the power of science and engineering in those examples, but also in the history of the institution I now lead: the Rockefeller Foundation. When I took on this job, I spent some time at the Rockefeller Archive Center near the family estate outside of New York City. And it was breathtaking to me to see how over this foundation’s 104-year history, we’ve had a profound legacy of applying the frontiers of science, technology, and engineering to improve the state of humanity. In fact, our founder, John D. Rockefeller Sr., recognized this potential after using science to advance his own business. He called this new approach to his foundation “scientific philanthropy,” and it’s enabled us to deliver results decade after decade after decade that have benefited tens and in fact hundreds of millions of people, and reshaped their access to basic services and human needs.

At the dawn of the 20th century, when quote-unquote ‘doctors’ were selling snake oil and modern medicine was still in its infancy, we transformed it into a scientific discipline – eradicating hookworm in the American South, developing the yellow fever vaccine, and creating the field of public health. We left a legacy of institutions in our wake: from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, to Peking Union Medical College that modernized medicine in China, to the forerunner of what is now the World Health Organization.

After seeing millions starve during World War II, and as booming population growth threatened to outpace global food production, we seeded research in agricultural science to meet the needs of the developing world economies. That transformed global food production and ultimately heralded in a Green Revolution that moved nearly a billion people off the brink of starvation.

When visionaries were on the cusp of pushing the envelope on scientific discovery – when astronomers like Edwin Hubble and George Hale needed a larger telescope to see if the universe was really expanding, and when physicists like Ernest Lawrence and Niels Bohr needed a massive new cyclotron to unlock the secrets of the atom – we helped build those giant machines so that they could advance the frontiers of knowledge.

When cognitive scientists John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky were just beginning to theorize how machines could emulate man, we helped them convene in the 1950s the seminal Dartmouth Conference on Artificial Intelligence – a field that has had its ups and downs, but now has greater relevance than perhaps ever before.

In more recent years, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Superstorm Sandy struck New York, we helped those cities leverage the expertise of engineers and material scientists, architects, and designers to rebuild in a more resilient and protective manner.

As the world has grown increasingly concerned about the global water crisis – something the Rockefeller Foundation first pondered in launching the field of hydrosystems analysis at Harvard in 1955 – we’ve helped leading hydrosystems engineers at the World Bank and the University of Massachusetts to forge the next great advance in that space.

And just over the last year, I’ve seen teams that we’ve supported in Africa collect imagery and geospatial data from airborne drones and satellites, so it can be analyzed and the data fed back to help local farmers in Kenya and Tanzania harvest their crops more efficiently.

But as we look at the global, technological, and engineering landscape today, we at the Rockefeller Foundation feel a unique calling to rise and deliver on our mission of improving the well-being of humanity around the world.

We live in a moment when – let’s be honest – anxiety about economic opportunity has led to real populist retrenchment in our politics, when automation and globalization are further separating haves and have nots, and when global goals – from fighting poverty, famine and disease to banding together to address climate change – are under immense pressure.

So we’ve been asking, how at this moment can we step up and lead? How can we continue to harness innovative work on the frontiers of engineering and science for the betterment of our future? And that’s why I came here today. Because at this summit, you’ve come together to advance the solutions to some of the world’s thorniest, biggest problems.

Think about power and electricity. Today more than a billion people worldwide are locked out of modern economic opportunity because they live in areas where they literally have no real access to electricity. That means tailors can’t depend on power tools and can only work by hand. It means children who want to read and study after dark have to use kerosene lamps that create fire hazards and indoor air pollution.

The Rockefeller Foundation along with our grantees and partners are trying to change that, by investing in mini-grids and solar-powered technologies. We’re doing that in India, and in Africa, and in other parts of the world. But as we do so, we’re asking what can we do – and what can you do, as engineers and scientists – to create even better solutions?

We know that solving these problems can change the lives of tens of millions of people who live in rural villages around the world. We know dairy farmers build cold storage facilities when they get power, they’re able to then the increase the amount income they have in their families, send their kids to schools. We’ve seen it because we’ve seen our current work impact the lives of more than 40,000 people in rural villages in India.

But we want these innovations to be scaled more significantly, so that we can actually solve energy access for hundreds of millions of people. But unless batteries get cheaper and more effective, unless solar cells get more economical and more efficient, and unless we can help small-scale companies and large utilities in the emerging world tie metering and billing technologies to mobile payment systems that have taken off throughout these markets, the number of lives we can impact will remain limited. It is going to take you all to solve these problems.

The same is true when it comes to food, our other big priority. We’re living at a time when the world has the ability to produce enough food to feed our population of 7 billion-plus people, and yet as we gather here today, catastrophic famines in four countries are threatening the lives of nearly 20 million people in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan.

A famine is not actually about a lack of food – nor about a harvest being too small or crops drying up. A famine is technically a declaration of a death rate. It means two people out of every 1,000 die every single day.

Witnessing the agony and suffering of famine is something you will never forget. In Afghanistan and Somalia, I’ve heard the cries of children afflicted by chronic hunger and hidden malnutrition. I’ve had the personal honor to hold some of these children in my arms. There is nothing quite so morally powerful, and painful, as watching a child perish because we didn’t have enough technology and science and engineering and political will applied in the right context to save that child’s life.

Of course, the challenge of hunger is not confined to these environments. I welcomed you all to Washington, D.C., but today 1 out of every 5 American children, including in this city, don’t know where their next meal will come from – a travesty that simply should not exist in 2017 in the wealthiest country on the planet.

Going forward, as the human population approaches 9 billion people, and as billions of people make the transition from living on $2 dollars a day to $10 dollars a day, primarily in Africa and Asia – they are going to demand higher-protein diets. And that’s a good thing. But that’s also why global consumption of meat has been predicted to increase by 76 percent by 2050. Today, you can invent the solutions that help us reshape the global food system in a sustainable way, so that it has a smaller carbon footprint – and so that every single person on this planet, from this city in Washington to the far reaches of Afghanistan, can eat and be nourished with dignity and equity, without breaking the back of our planet. But it will take real advances in science and engineering.

We’ll need more biochemical engineers to re-create animal protein from non-animal sources – perhaps building on, scaling, and globalizing innovations like those that use the heme molecule to replicate the look, smell, sizzle, and even taste of a hamburger, despite it being made from plant protein. We’ll need agricultural engineers to discover new sources of animal feed that have a smaller environmental footprint than our sources today. And we’ll need data scientists and software engineers to help interpret – and make available to everyone – the volumes of information that will be gathered on farms around the world using new soil sensors, airborne cameras, and commercial satellite imagery.

The same concepts are true for the rest of the 14 grand challenges you have all stepped up to address throughout this conference. And for each other them I would urge you to think about, what is the specific breakthrough in each area – from evolving the nitrogen cycle, to rethinking how we are able to provide power and energy to each other – that could allow for genuine systems change and inspire the rest of us that these are in fact solvable problems?

Of course, when I say it like that it sounds easy. We start with a neat list of problems. We mix in some scientific breakthroughs and inspire others to join us as we come up with great new engineering solutions. And lives are saved, and everyone’s happy.

But this formula does hide a few real challenges lurking underneath. With progress comes risk.

The risk that we don’t have as good a grip on our technology as we think we do is one of them. That’s how well-intended discoveries can have terrible unexpected consequences – like a CRISPR off-target mutation that could persist for generations.

A second risk is that technology will be deliberately used for malicious purposes, to do the kinds of things humans have always done with greater power in their hands: to act in their own self-interest, create monopolies of power, or wage war against each other.

That complexity is something we as a foundation have a bit of experience with. While we proudly funded the Berkeley cyclotron in the late 30s, it was only after World War II that we fully realized some of those investments were used to help create the atomic bomb.

What are the cyclotrons of our day? Or of the next 10 years?

Our newfound ability to edit genetic code could be used to resurrect virulent diseases, as is already happening.

Cyberattacks are the number-one threat facing institutions today around the world – and the next generation of cyber war could cripple not only dozens of companies or private institutions, but entire economies and health systems.

Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence in the workplace could effectively dehumanize whole swaths of the global population. Think of a service worker who has their schedules set by impersonal algorithms – the algorithm optimizes for the employer, potentially creating disastrous outcomes for workers. We’re already seeing automation supplant jobs and destroy people’s sense of livelihoods, identity, even dignity.

I know to some, these concerns may sound hyperbolic or like something from a Keanu Reeves movie. But when someone as steeped in technology as Elon Musk calls artificial intelligence “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization,” or when Sergey Brin says he was “surprised” at how fast these technologies are progressing, you realize this isn’t simply Luddite alarmism. Instead it’s something to be taken seriously. And if we believe these concerns are legitimate, we – and you – have a responsibility to act on them.

The truth is, we don’t yet know the answers to how these questions will play out over time. But we do know this: Whether we go down a positive path or a darker one will be determined by us, and the policy, academic, and scientific decisions we make right now.

People, and those in this room, are the only way to harness the good and banish the bad. After all, the same process of splitting the atom can provide power to thousands of homes or burn them to ground. The physics don’t change. But the outcomes couldn’t be more different.

Today we face choices that aren’t as clear as the ones presented by nuclear fission, but carry equal and perhaps more profound weight. The same algorithm that can help doctors save a child’s life by predicting and preventing disease can also doom the child’s parent to a lifetime of bad credit, poverty, and irrelevance.

What does this mean for us? What should you be thinking about to advance the public interest?

Throughout history, frankly, too many engineers have left the moral and social consequences of these questions to politicians and corporate executives, and I would urge you not to do that today – especially for the young folks here at this conference. I would urge you to not be moral bystanders, but instead be moral leaders.

By coming to this summit, you’ve already made clear where you stand – you’ve chosen to step forward and use your knowledge and your skills and your capabilities to make the world a better place. And that’s deeply inspiring. That’s why I wanted my son to come here today.

But the world needs more engineers like you: more experts with evidence-based worldviews who can help make technological advances work for the poor, feed the hungry, and bring power to those who live without.

And not enough are doing so today. According to the National Science Foundation, there are 23 million scientists and engineers in America, and only 11 percent work in nonprofit organizations. More than half work in for-profit businesses, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; that’s a good thing, because you can do good from anywhere. But there is still something unique about advancing this cause in the public interest.

Just imagine the good that could be achieved if twice as many scientists and engineers thought about these problems and engaged in policy, politics, and similar leadership.

If you use your backgrounds to make a profit, consider how you can be the moral voice in your organization and encourage others to help harness the good and banish the bad in science and technology.

Better yet, please consider using your skills and knowledge to really advance the public good: Serve in government. Serve in nonprofit organizations. Help fight extreme poverty around the world. The paychecks may be smaller – and I can attest they are – because building drones for a defense contractor is certainly more lucrative than doing the same to capture the agricultural outcomes in rural Kenya. But I guarantee you that the work, and the results that you can deliver in people’s lives, will be infinitely rewarding. You’ll benefit not only those around you, but also yourselves – and there is a meaning to that that can help power your career.

Now, we at the Rockefeller Foundation are going to hold up our end of the bargain. Today I’m committing that the Rockefeller Foundation will be getting back into the space of science, technology, and data in a much bigger way going forward – building on legacy, and expanding it. We’re starting with several new grant commitments to critical organizations that are currently defending science and its vital place in our public discourse. Through this series of grants to partners like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we hope to stand up and make a statement that now is a particularly important time for scientists, technologists, and engineers and those who ground their decisions in real evidence and analysis to be taken more seriously.

Indeed, as I stand here this morning thinking about all the ways that science and engineering can be exploited in harmful ways, I am truly hopeful – because I know that we at the foundation have had the experience of seeing all of this applied for profound good.

And I see that same spirit right here in this room:

In the hundreds of engineering students, from across the United States, the United Kingdom, and China who came here this morning with a passion to solve global problems for the betterment of humanity;

In the researchers and professors who are shaping a new generation of engineers and helping them see how they can put their talents to work in ways that truly improve people’s lives even in the farthest, toughest-to-reach corners of the globe;

And in the alumni of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program who I know have gone on to do exactly that – from Gregory Poore, who’s helping engineer a world where cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments are available to every cancer patient, to Amara Uyanna, who’s used her chemical engineering degree to clean up oil pollution in the Niger Delta, helping change the lives of over 30 million people in that region.

You’re going to have an incredible summit these next two days. You’re going to hear from top minds at places like Google and Oculus on the cutting-edge fields of virtual reality and A.I. – and hopefully learning how these technologies can be applied for the good of all people, not just a few.

If you don’t, I challenge you to be the ones who think of how that can be done, and to take back what you’ve thought about and what you’ve learned from here to be ambassadors wherever you go for how engineering can be harnessed to improve the state of humanity. As long as you do that, you can’t go wrong – and I can’t wait to see what you’re going to achieve.

Thank you.

Dr. Rajiv J. Shah

Dr. Rajiv J. Shah

Dr. Shah brings over twenty years of experience in business, … Read Full Bio