DARPA seeks the next great challenges

What do putting on a man on the moon, the Human Genome Project and Wikipedia have in common? They all are examples of solutions to grand challenges – ambitious but achievable goals that captured the public’s attention and were fueled by innovation. So what will the next grand challenge be?

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is looking to discover just that. In a new request for information, DARPA is asking for input to identify the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century -- part of a broader national innovation strategy under the Obama administration.

Read the RFI.

"Grand Challenges are not restricted to projects to be undertaken under government sponsorship, but will likely be tackled by groups both within and outside the United States, using both public and private resources," the RFI noted. "Because of the cross-disciplinary nature of the most vexing problems facing the world today, Grand Challenges that are simply posed, inspirational, and easy to visualize for a variety of audiences are desired."

DARPA hopes to attract ideas from a diverse audience – "young and old, scientist and layperson, domestic and international." Responses are due by Jan. 1, 2013.

Last spring, Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, highlighted Grand Challenges as a critical part of American innovation and as an area some agencies are targeting to help their missions.

Kalil pointed out that the Energy Department is supporting the Grand Challenges movement in some of its clean energy initiatives, as well as USAID, which has launched grand challenges addressing newborn health and literacy. He also noted that the administration has encouraged incentivization to help meet Grand Challenges goals.

"Incentive prizes work as one tool to address Grand Challenges because they shine a spotlight on an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed," Kalil said at the Information Technology Innovation Foundation in Washington. "Incentive prizes help us reach beyond the 'usual suspects' to increase the number of minds tackling a problem, bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear and inspiring risk-taking by offering a level playing field."

It’s not clear what kind of incentives DARPA could offer, or if the agency will offer any – the RFI notes only that some selected responses may be featured or otherwise promoted by OSTP and DARPA. While DARPA did not respond to an FCW request by press time, finding such wide-reaching solutions themselves could be the ultimate incentive.

"These Grand Challenges can help solve an important societal problem by serving as a ‘North Star’ to provide focus and cohesion among disparate but potentially complementary research and development efforts," the RFI noted. "The consequences of these achievements will often affect many different disciplines, and the full ramifications may not be known for decades to come."



About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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