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'Grand challenges' spur grand results

Private groups are offering big cash prizes to anyone who can solve a range of daunting problems.

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In October 2004 SpaceShipOne roared into space (twice) - the first privately funded spacecraft ever to reach suborbit, nearly 70 miles above Earth. A year later, "Stanley," a Volkswagen Touareg modified by Stanford University students, rumbled across some 130 miles of desert without a human driver, navigating the rough terrain guided by computer programs and sensors.

Chalk up two new technological accomplishments for the 21st century. In both cases, the designers were motivated to be the first to do something - and to win a cash prize. The Ansari X PRIZE for spaceflight paid out $10 million from a private foundation. The DARPA Grand Challenge for robotic vehicles awarded $2 million, put up by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Using "grand challenges" to stimulate scientific progress isn't new. In 1714 the British government offered the equivalent of about $12 million to answer a vexing question: How could His Majesty's ships calculate their longitude - how far they were east or west of home - to avoid shipwrecks and other disasters? Great scientists of the day attacked the problem, but it was solved by John Harrison, a self-taught watchmaker.

In 1900 mathematician David Hilbert proposed 23 math problems he hoped would be solved in the 20th century (16 of them were). A problem "should not be too difficult lest it mock at our efforts," he said in presenting his challenges. "It should be to us a guidepost on the mazy paths to hidden truths...."

Now the early 21st century is seeing a raft of new grand challenges. The aim: Change the world - one prize at a time.

The cluster of challenges may be the result of both bad and good news facing science today, says Gilbert Omenn, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. On the downside, budget deficits have put federal science funding in jeopardy. Scientists are "quite anxious" about their projects, he says. Private "grand challenges" offer fresh resources and encouragement.

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