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White House Seeks Public Input On Innovation Goals

The Obama Administration is turning to crowdsourcing to identify "grand challenges" to support as national technology innovation goals.

The White House this week issued a request for public input on potential game-changing technologies the administration might pursue with research and development dollars. The quest to identify innovation goals for the next century is modeled at least in part on President Kennedy's commitment to send man to the moon in the 1960s.

More specifically, the White House appears to be looking to set up a number of "grand challenges" for inventors and scientists to solve over coming years, which the country could use as "an organizing principle for America's science, technology and innovation policy" in order to address key national priorities, spur economic growth, and catalyze interest in the sciences.

"The focus of this RFI is on hard, unsolved scientific or engineering challenges that will have significant economic or societal impact and address an important national priority," the White House said in an announcement outlining the effort. Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra's most commonly used phrase in talking about sparking innovation is "the need for game-changing ideas."

The administration first raised the prospect of these "grand challenges" in a September document outlining the President's innovation strategy. That document identified a number of ambitious goals for the United States to meet in the 21st Century, among them the development of educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor, medical advances such as smart anti-cancer drugs that attack only tumor cells, energy advances such as solar cells as cheap as paint, and devices the size of a sugar cube that could store the entire contents of the Library of Congress.

Responses are due to the White House by April 15, and the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy has set up an e-mail address,, where citizens can send their ideas.

Specifically, the White House is asking for public input not only on what challenges should be pursued and how the public might participate in their pursuit, but why certain activities should be grand challenges, how the United States could build on already ongoing activities to pursue them, how to measure success and evaluate progress, what the appropriate roles are for government and other stakeholders, and what sticky issues might be raised by their pursuit.

While it's unclear exactly what might be done with the information, the effort dovetails with the administration's open government strategy. Part of that strategy seeks to increase citizen participation in government, as public input may help guide the White House's research and development policies and determine ways for the public to become part of these challenges.

The White House will be working with social media pioneer Anil Dash's non-profit Expert Labs to "explore new ways of tapping the expertise of the American people on these grand challenges."

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