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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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"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."

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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."

Meanwhile, prize-based Grand Challenges continue to spring up:

• The Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass., is offering seven $1 million prizes for the solutions to seven classic problems in mathematics. The institute, founded in 1998, issued its challenge in May 2000. So far, no prizes have been awarded.

• Inspired by the X PRIZE's success, NASA has created its Centennial Challenges Program, funding a number of $250,000 challenges aimed at speeding space exploration. They include finding a way to extract oxygen from moon rocks and making advanced explorer robots.

• The Methuselah Mouse Prize will award more than $3 million to the first researcher who can extend the lifespan of a certain species of mouse from about three years to five years. "It's analogous to the sword in the stone. Whoever pulls it out gets the money," says David Gobel, cofounder of the Methuselah Foundation, which sponsors the prize, first offered in 2003.

But a successful grand challenge involves more than money, Omenn says. It needs to be clearly stated, socially worthy, and difficult but not impossible to achieve. It's misleading to assume "if you put a big enough amount of money on a stump every problem is solvable," he says.

Now that the first X PRIZE has been won, the X Prize Foundation is moving on to create new challenges, Mr. Diamandis says. The foundation expects to offer a prize, with NASA, for the first private orbital spaceflight. It also wants to offer a prize to uncover new energy sources for cars.

"Our mission is to cause radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity and to use prizes as our primary method," he says.

The government's DARPA robotic vehicle challenge was spurred by the X PRIZE concept. In the first DARPA challenge in 2004, none of the vehicles came close to completing the course. In 2005, four vehicles finished.

"The rate of success in just one year shows how powerful these challenges can be," says Ian Murphy, an X Prize Foundation spokesman.