At the same time, breakthroughs like the sequencing of the human genome, announced in 2003, have brought exuberance, showing that complex scientific problems are solvable.
"Prizes change the public perception about an issue," says Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. People begin to believe that a problem is solvable. "The more prize money, the more the issue is seen as important by the public."
Last June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put an exclamation point after "grand challenge" when it announced one of the richest in history. The Grand Challenges for Global Health pledged $436.6 million (including $31.6 million from British and Canadian sources) toward solving some of the world's worst health problems. Preliminary funds have been granted to 43 groups attacking 14 challenges. They include: developing vaccines to prevent malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV that don't require refrigeration, needles, or multiple doses; finding new ways to stop the spread of insect-borne diseases; and developing more nutritious crops to feed the hungry.
"It's marvelous," Dr. Omenn says. The challenges are attacking problems "that have been neglected, probably to our shame, for lack of confidence that there was anything that could be done."
The AAAS has made "Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities" the theme of its annual meeting in St. Louis next month. And last July, a special issue of Science magazine asked, "What don't we know?" identifying 125 questions that puzzle researchers (though offering no prizes). Among them: "What is the biological basis of consciousness?" "What is the universe made of?"
"Science is shaped by ignorance," said 2004 Nobel physics laureate David Gross in an essay in that issue. "Great questions themselves evolve, of course, because their answers spawn new and better questions in turn."