recently the National Academy of Engineering developed a set 14 Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century (NRC, 2008).2

In each case, a common purpose—combined with new funding, new technologies, new ideas, and an influx of new scientists—drove researchers to tackle problems that seemed impossible just a few years earlier.

Neuroscience has made phenomenal advances over the past 50 years and the pace of discovery continues to accelerate. Some of that progress has resulted from the simultaneous appearance of new technologies, like those of molecular biology, neuroimaging, and computer and information science. The progress of the past in combination with these new tools and techniques has positioned neuroscience on the cusp of even greater transformational progress in our understanding of the brain and how its activities result in mental activity.

Recognizing that neuroscience is not, of course, really a single field is important. Rather, it is a multidisciplinary enterprise including diverse fields of biology, psychology, neurology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science, and more. If scientists within neuroscience and related disciplines could unite around a small set of goals, the opportunity for advancing our understanding of brain and mental function would be huge.

Exploring that potential set of common goals, or Grand Challenges, was one of the major goals of the workshop.

What Can We Achieve

For a Grand Challenges exercise to work, it must ask questions that are both big and answerable. The questions must fire the soul and stir the spirit, but also be approachable in a scientifically rigorous manner, explained Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chair of the Forum on Neuroscience.

For neuroscience, the first part is easy. Neuroscience is aimed at one of the most fundamental questions of all: How does our physical body


Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century was authored by the NRC’s Committee on the Physics of the Universe. Grand Challenges for Engineering was authored by the NRC’s Committee on Grand Challenges for Engineering. Neither was a workshop summary, but rather included specific findings and recommendations of the respective committee.

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