The Concept of Grand Challenges
We owe the concept of the grand challenge to German mathematician David Hilbert, who presented a list of 23 unsolved “mathematical puzzles” to an international society of mathematicians in 1900. His address galvanized the efforts of mathematicians for the next century.
Today, more than 100 years later, national academies, foundations, universities, even whole countries have launched Grand Challenges projects to inspire, align, and focus a field, institution or nation’s scientific and practical energy towards meeting society’s greatest needs.
Following in this rich tradition, the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare (AASWSW) first convened a blue-ribbon, volunteer committee to plan and lead the project. The original, and current, Grand Challenges Leadership Group includes some of the nation’s leading scientists, educators, and policy experts from throughout the field of social work.
Beginning in 2013, the committee sought wide input from across the profession and began to develop strategic partnerships with social work’s national organizations, interest groups, and academic entities. The group also commissioned several background papers to explain the Grand Challenges concept and to describe the many of the significant accomplishments of social work during the preceding century.
Initially, the Committee issued a broad call for ideas and received more than 80 separate concepts for Grand Challenges. Committee members synthesized and reviewed this collection and then sought nearly two dozen academic working papers in support of this diverse group of ideas. From this process, the Executive Committee then distilled the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.
These challenges met several critical, notably that they were important, compelling to the broader public, and represented areas that were amenable to meaningful and measurable change within 10 years. Committee members looked for challenges that boiled down the science to focus on the best work with the clearest connection to intervention possibilities that social work and partners could deliver.
The initial papers that set the stage for the Grand Challenges initiative: