Funding Agency:
Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation

This program is dedicated for faculty researchers of all levels exclusively at Duke University and its various divisions.

The Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation (Foundation) is a private foundation based out of Metairie, Louisiana founded in 1954. The Foundation has proudly supported basic science research programs since its inception and enjoys longstanding relationships with some of the top scientific institutions in the United States. One of the Foundation’s mission objectives is to answer the great questions of life. The life question we are examining in 2023 is: How do the brain processes cause consciousness and how is consciousness realized in the brain?

SUMMARY: There is no generally agreed upon definition of consciousness. One reasonable over simplification is to simply define consciousness as the awareness of one’s own subjective experience.  The Foundation would like to see the question of consciousness treated as a scientific problem like any other as we seek to objectively explain how the brain processes cause consciousness and objectively explain how consciousness is realized in the brain. We seek for someone to design an objective test for consciousness to be developed and seek for this funding to be used to test feasibility. Though we are generally anticipating tests for biological organisms, we would certainly consider submissions for an objective test for consciousness for artificial intelligence.

RESEARCH PROBLEM STATEMENT: Central nervous system generative higher functions form the challenge field.  Examples of such functions for this purpose include curiosity, music composition and appreciation, deductive and inductive reasoning, humor, mathematics, novel stimulus processing, day dreaming, self-imposed memory manipulation, language acquisition and use, identifying and pursuing long-term goals and, perhaps, even consciousness itself.  We include “the hard problem” in the generative higher function example list despite the turmoil that currently swirls about its very definition. This is not a physics challenge, but please step forward if you can construct a neuroscience experiment that refutes or proves the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics or the Penrose-Hameroff microtubule conjecture.  Similarly, this is not a philosophy challenge.  Untestable speculations fall outside its scope.  This seems to rule out experimental designs refuting or proving that humans share panpsychism with a cabbage.  Nonetheless, the Foundation would not turn our backs on genius so please do not limit yourself.

This challenge has these characteristics which we hope attracts your interest: (1) the exercise offers a light-hearted and enjoyable opportunity to explore your creative limits, (2) it elevates creativity over the pragmatic, but with the hope the exercise sparks advancements in your approach to research, (3) exchanges with like-minded, intrepid participants might help you recast your idea into something quickly or efficiently implemented, and (4) our observations of the responses to the challenge will impact the possibility of having it serve as an archetype for future programs.

We ask those wishing to participate in the challenge to submit an experiment design in the challenge field.  This submission consists of a few pages and can take any form. 

JUDGING CRITERIA: Our judges will look for four factors in the selection processes.  (1) Creative and Imaginative Thinking. This might manifest as selection of novel or better focused higher generative processes.  It might also arise from the design itself.  (2) Plausibility.  A projected $100 million cost would not render a design implausible for this purpose. Nor should this factor discount a truly original idea challenging what the community sees as established fact if logical reasoning reveals an opportunity. On the other hand, an experiment grounded in the existence of “fairy dust” would fall short.  An example of implausibility would be an experiment that assumes subjective consciousness resides in a previously undiscovered subatomic particle with mass and proposes to measure that mass by weighing subjects as they pass to and from a conscious state— presumably with more accuracy than Dr. Macdougall’s famous 21 grams experiment. (3) Impact. If the experiment were properly performed, would the refutation or proof impact neuroscience? (4) Enthusiasm. Looking back at the foundation’s support for basic biomedical research over decades, we have come to recognize enthusiasm as a significant element of investigator success. Not only does it drive the investigator’s effort, communicating that enthusiasm attracts team members, collaborators and funders.  A fact- crammed, intellectually-driven, emotion-free paper in a peer-reviewed publication may cap your research, but it probably did not produce it. 

PROPOSAL OUTLINE: We have no strict outline for proposals, though we recommend applications be no more than seven (7) pages long, single-spaced, with one-inch margins all around and 12-point font.  That said, there are some basics that should be included in any proposal; those basics are:

  1. OBJECTIVES: Summarize the key items to be accomplished for your project to be a success.
  2. RESEARCH PLAN: Describe how the objectives will be achieved through a plan. This should include a statement on your research approach and literature review.
  3. DELIVERABLES: What sort of deliverables are you anticipating to generate.
  4. PROJECT SCHEDULE AND BUDGET: What schedule do you envision (the Foundation seeks a two year or less time period) and what is your itemized budget.
  5. EQUIPMENT & FACILITIES: What sort of equipment and facilities do you need and will Duke be able to grant you access to same.
  6. RESEARCH TEAM: No one works entirely alone in 2023, identify who all may be sharing some of your research burden.
  7. TIME PERIOD: In an ideal world, we’d like to have a final report in twenty-four months from initial funding, but identify whatever time period you need for this work.

PROPOSAL DELIVERY INSTRUCTIONS: Submit written proposals to this portal by October 11, 2023 by 11:59 pm. Applicants and grants administrators must assure that final review and approval by ORA/ORS is complete prior to submission. Upload to this portal constitutes submission to the external funder.

Please submit internal materials through My Research Proposal. (Code: ILN)

Instructions for creating an account (if needed) and submitting your materials:

Please contact Brooke Church, Senior Associate Director for Foundation Relations & Strategic Partnerships, Duke Health Development and Alumni Affairs at if you have questions about the application, or would like to discuss your proposal before submission. Please do not contact the Brown Foundation directly.

Eligibility Requirements

This program is dedicated for faculty researchers of all levels exclusively at Duke University and its various divisions.



Amount Description

One award of up to $130,000, to be funded $80,000 in 2023 and $50,000 in 2024.

Funding Type





Arts & Humanities
Medical - Basic Science
Medical - Clinical Science
Medical - Translational
Social Sciences

External Deadline

October 11, 2023