vehicles constitute one-third of the Armed Forces’ fleet by 2015.1 NASA’s selection of topics for its Centennial Challenges followed an internal process of idea generation and a two-day Washington, D.C., workshop attended by over 200 representatives from aerospace and nonaerospace companies, universities, and other government agencies, divided into six brainstorming sessions. Approximately 30 promising ideas were then considered in detail in subsequent rules definition sessions.2

The committee decided to discuss a number of possible prize topic areas for NSF but not with an eye toward recommending them. Rather, we discussed them as means of exploring and better understanding how prize contests could be structured around them. Obviously, these discussions were not exhaustive. Here are a few of those topics, along with our thoughts on what could be done to transform them into goals that would drive innovation inducement prize contests. It should be noted that a number of plausible initial suggestions fell into the domains of defense, space, and medicine, but we considered these unlikely candidates for NSF, at least in the early stages of its program.

Fast, sensitive, and cost-effective chemical sensors for pollutants. The goal of a contest in this area would be to stimulate development of an array of chemical sensing devices that could be used to monitor a range of indoor and outdoor environments for the presence of a large number of chemical substances as pollutants or as chemical weapons. Low cost and high reliability are hallmarks of what is hoped for. This suggests that the contest objective would be multidimensional, including necessary levels of sensitivity and specificity, lifetime in use, compatibility with integrated monitoring systems, responsiveness to a target set of chemical species, and some measure of the anticipated costs of manufacture, integration, and application of multisensor devices.

Nano self-assembly. The promise of nanotechnology is predicated in part on achieving generalized methods of producing useful materials and devices at nanoscale by employing self-assembly methods in solid state, in solution, or perhaps in living systems. Many specific approaches to molecular self-assembly have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments in recent years. There is no generalized theory or algorithm that enables the material or device designer to depend on self-assembly methods with confidence, but such a generalized approach could be both feasible and valuable.


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Grand Challenge 2004: Final Report. Arlington, Va.: July 30, 2004.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 2004 Centennial Challenges Workshop Report. Washington, D.C.: October 26, 2004.

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