The US should use "grand challenges" to prioritize government funding for aeronautics research, says a new study by think-tank RAND, arguing current policies setting the research agenda are too technology-centric and fail to provide the strategic vision needed.
Grand challenges are fundamental problems the solutions to which have broad economic, social or technical applications. They been used before to focus US research on high-performance computing, computational fluid dynamics and autonomous road vehicles.
RAND thinks grand challenges addressing broad goals such as reducing travel time or increasing aviation safety could be a more effective at prioritizing government-funded aeronautics research than the current national policies and plans that guide NASA.
Aeronautics is relatively mature and research has become more evolutionary, raising questions over whether public funding continues to be appropriate or necessary, says the study, conducted by RAND for NASA’s aeronautics research mission directorate. “Tightening federal budgets and increasing calls to address other public demands make these questions sharper still,” says the report.
“Grand challenges can help identify multiple research possibilities addressing a broad, common goal,” says RAND. Challenges can unify and inspire research, but must reflect the social and economic value and technical realities, it adds. To illustrate, the report provides a list of potential grand challenges for aeronautics.
Chart: RAND (click on image to enlarge)
“Aeronautics is a relatively mature field struggling to find revolutionary yet practical deigns and concepts,” says RAND. Arguing there are still social and economic “drivers” requiring advances in aviation, the report concludes its new framework for prioritizing publicly funded research “can lead to large, compelling rationales...for advancing aeronautics.”
I'm all for strategic visions and grand challenges - see what the X Prize has done for suborbital spaceflight - but I am not convinced RAND's list is the right starting point. Any thoughts?