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Researchers call for global grand challenge to develop renewable energy

In a comment in this week’s science journal Nature, an international group of researchers from nine countries call for a grand challenges strategy to set global priorities for developing renewable energy.

The authors argue that greenhouse gas emissions are not dropping fast enough to meet even the modest goals set out in last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change. They call for a targeted, internationally coordinated effort to identify and solve the scientific, policy and economic challenges standing in the way of widespread adoption of renewable energy.

“Renewable energy … is a difficult, urgent global problem that has been neglected in terms of public research and investment. It requires big thinking, multidisciplinary approaches and supportive policies to compete with existing systems. And it is tightly coupled to global challenges, such as food and water security, poverty and health,” the authors write.

They suggest an approach modeled on the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative to combat neglected diseases, launched in 2005 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Foundation for the US National Institutes of Health. The initiative identified 14 priority areas, including developing a genetic strategy to incapacitate insects that spread diseases such as yellow fever and Zika virus.

The authors suggest that national governments, funding partners, philanthropic foundations and other private-sector actors come together and appoint an international science board of distinguished researchers, policymakers, industry leaders and engaged citizens from developed and developing countries. The board would create a detailed list of renewable energy challenges in areas including energy harvesting and storage, smart grids and transmission, policy levers and economic models.

“Such a shared purpose … would accommodate the many disciplines needed across the natural and social sciences, and galvanize the best investigators – regardless of country – to work together to help solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the authors conclude.

A copy of the commentary is available upon request. A complete list of signatories follows.

The comment, “Renewables need a grand-challenge strategy,” will be published Thursday, Oct. 6 in Nature.



CIFAR creates knowledge that is transforming our world. Established in 1982, the Institute brings together interdisciplinary groups of extraordinary researchers from around the globe to address questions and challenges of importance to the world. Our networks help support the growth of research leaders and are catalysts for change in business, government and society. CIFAR is generously supported by the governments of Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, Canadian and international partners, as well as individuals, foundations and corporations.

Kurt Kleineer
Managing Editor
Canadian Institute for Advanced Research

List of authors and co-signatories:

Main authors:

Alan Bernstein, CIFAR President and CEO, Toronto, Canada;

Edward H. Sargent, CIFAR Senior Fellow and Director of the Bio-Inspired Solar Energy Program; and Edward S. Rogers Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada;

Alán Aspuru-Guzik, CIFAR Senior Fellow, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA;

Richard Cogdell, CIFAR Advisor, Hooker Professor of Botany, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK;

Graham R Fleming, Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Kavli Energy Nanoscience Institute, UC Berkeley, Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bio-imaging Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, USA;

Rienk Van Grondelle, CIFAR Senior Fellow, Professor of Biophysics, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands;

Mario Molina, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego and President, Mario Molina Centre for Strategic Studies on Energy and the Environment, Mexico.


Curtis P. Berlinguette, CIFAR Senior Fellow, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical & Biological Engineering, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada;

Fekadu Beyene, President, Ethiopian Civil Service University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;

Kanzunari Domen, Professor of Chemical Systems Engineering, School of Engineering, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan;

Shaffiq Jaffer, VP Corporate Science and Technology Projects, TOTAL American Services, Inc. Boston, USA;

Can Li, Professor, State Key Laboratory of Catalysis, Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Director, Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy, Dalian, China;

Gregory D. Scholes, CIFAR Senior Fellow, William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, Princeton University, Princeton, USA;

Vivian Wing-Wah YAM, Professor of Chemistry, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

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