strengthens its coherence. Grand challenges should be defined in terms that are recognizable to the basic research community, but AFOSR should also be able to map the grand challenges to future Air Force technologies, strengthening the linkage between basic research and the rest of Air Force R&D. The grand challenges are not part of, nor do they compete with, the AFRL focused long-term challenges (which are more oriented toward technologies), but they should link to them.

Some examples of grand challenges in a general sense are included in a recent paper by well-known computer scientist Butler Lampson:1

  • Development of a computer that hears, speaks, and sees as well as a person;

  • A system architecture that scales up by 106; and

  • An information system that can be used by millions yet only requires a part-time support staff.

Such grand challenges quite naturally facilitate new interdisciplinary research communities: “interdisciplinary” because the breadth of the challenges calls for varied expertise and “naturally” because the associated researchers are interested in the whole range of efforts addressing the grand challenges. The Computing Research Association has for several years held conferences that similarly seek to identify grand challenges for computer science more generally. Information about these meetings may be found at

Figure 7-1 suggests how the grand challenges model would contribute to cohesion across the total Air Force R&D enterprise. The grand challenges would be defined by AFOSR as a clear response to AFRL and Air Force technology needs, but in terms of concepts that motivate the basic research community. They have the advantage of not biasing the research directions chosen to address a particular Air Force need: They define a challenge for the research community that relates to desired capabilities but do not present the research community with specific technology goals, as would be the case if the basic research program were motivated directly by current Air Force technology programs. In turn, the 6.1 research builds up a base of knowledge related to the grand challenges (the arrow on the lower right of Figure 7-1), and the rest of the Air Force R&D community can track progress on the grand challenges that support its technology goals. That transition (indicated by the arrow at the lower left of Figure 7-1) is aided by the computational laboratories recommended in Chapter 9.


B. Lampson, “Computing meets the physical world,” The Bridge 33(1) (2003).

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