A two-pronged dilemma underpins many of the foremost global challenges, including climate change, chronic hunger, water management, extreme poverty, and disease control. On one side is the fact that these issues are all complex and often interrelated.
On the other side is a mismatch between tasks and skills. Despite the broadly recognized importance of these problems, the world faces a systematic gap in preparing people to solve them.
Consider the integrated challenge of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed-upon targets set in 2000 for tackling extreme poverty in its many forms by 2015. Progress on the goal for safe drinking water and sanitation is needed to cut diarrheal disease, a major hurdle en route to the child-mortality goal. Likewise, the education goal is directly influenced by progress in disease control. For example, reducing malaria infections allows more healthy children to stay in school, and antiretroviral medicines allow more HIV-infected teachers to stay alive.
Sustained advances against hunger and income poverty similarly hinge on joint progress in health, education, infrastructure, and opportunities for girls and women. Meanwhile, all of the goals are subject to the broader forces of anthropogenic climate change and the vicissitudes of the global economy.
Each program sphere requires systematic management of policy design, implementation systems, and sources of finance. How do we train people to manage problem-solving processes across these interrelated areas? The simple answer is that we don’t—yet. Today there are two core relevant paths to professional education. One is the high-level specialist, the PhD or perhaps medical doctor, who might receive eight to 12 years of post-secondary education to prepare for a career in which advancement depends on refining expertise in a particular area of focus. The other path is a policy degree at the masters level, which typically entails five or six years of less formal post-secondary training in social science methods, sometimes with an emphasis on a particular discipline, such as environment or public health.
The global skill gap arises because neither the high-level specialist within a discipline nor the policy-school graduate is likely to be equipped with the skills needed to solve global problems of a cross-disciplinary nature. The experts provide crucial insights, but their skills are typically focused on generating research, debating ideas, and addressing narrow issues rather than large-scale professional problem solving and management. Meanwhile, the policy graduate typically lacks the grounding in core scientific principles across the appropriate range of topics. The solution lies in training sophisticated science-educated generalists who can coordinate insights across disciplines while managing complex agendas for results.