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Back to September 2002 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the September 2002 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 14/No. 4, p. 3.]

CRA Holds Grand Research Challenges Conference

Many in the computer science and engineering research community believe that it is appropriate, if not urgent, to re-think what are the grand research challenges of the field. So when a conference to discuss grand research challenges was proposed, CRA agreed to organize it. Seventy participants met at the first CRA Grand Research Challenges in Computer Science and Engineering Conference on June 23 to 26 at the Airlie Resort in Warrenton, VA.

The conference was the brainchild of University of Virginia CS professor Anita Jones, who chaired the organizing committee, and Dr. William Wulf, current President of the National Academy of Engineering. Their experience attending a Gordon Conference led them to believe that a similar kind of meeting conducted in a retreat environment might also be productive for the computing research community. The conference was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The response from the community for such a meeting was enthusiastic, and the organizing committee decided to make the conference a "by invitation only" retreat. Modeled after the Gordon Conferences, its goal was to hold two and a half days of intensive research discussions that would lead to the identification of several "grand challenges." The committee felt that the focus had to be narrowed somewhat, and they chose "computing systems" as the theme for the conference..

Attendees were selected based one or more grand challenge position papers that they submitted for consideration. "Out -of-the-box" thinking was encouraged in these submissions, and those selected to attend were strongly encouraged to participate for the entire time in order to provide the focused effort required for the conference to succeed.

Members of the organizing committee included William Aspray, Computing Research Association; Ambuj Goyal, IBM Watson Research Center; Mary Jane Irwin, Penn State University; Ed Lazowska, University of Washington; Dave Patterson, University of California, Berkeley; Jordan Pollack, Brandeis University; Bob Sproull, Sun Microsystems Cambridge Research Laboratory; and Bill Wulf, National Academy of Engineering.

There were only two prepared talks at the conference. The rest of the time involved focused discussions, sometimes in plenary sessions and sometimes in small self-selected focus groups that discussed and framed specific topics. Participants held working sessions after dinner, leaving some time free in the afternoon for recreation, but the organizing committee observed that most attendees just kept working in small focus groups in the afternoons. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a lively talk on the first evening ("Without Vision, the People Perish").

Only the first day's program was scheduled in advance; groups were asked to discuss strawman "grand challenge" areas that were offered by the committee. Some of these survived participant scrutiny and others were discarded or reshaped. Whole new challenges arose in discussion.

Each evening attendees were given the opportunity to vote on the challenges that were discussed that day to determine what sessions should go forward the next day. The organizing committee met late each evening to plan a schedule for the next day based on voting results. The organizing committee initially found this scheduling approach daunting, but the flexibility was helpful.

In the end, participants selected a total of five challenges with reasonably strong consensus. Several are cast as societal challenges that computer science and engineering can help meet. Others are technical challenges in the forefront of research.

The organizing committee is preparing a conference report that will be published by CRA in the fall. The report will be widely disseminated to the technical community, industry, future computer science graduates, funding agencies, and the public.

Based on the enthusiasm of attendees for such discussions, CRA will appoint a steering committee to consider holding similar conferences in the future to discuss "grand challenge" research topics selected from other areas of computer science and engineering.

Slides and other documentation from the meeting are available on CRA's website at:


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