Published On: Wed, Feb 14th, 2018

How Universities Are Tackling Society's Grand Challenges

In 2013, UCLA announced its Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which aims to transition Los Angeles County to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent locally sourced water, and enhanced ecosystem and human health by 2050. Since its launch, nearly 30 faculty members have co-developed a 5-year work plan comprising more than 100 research recommendations, and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti have chaired an L.A. Sustainability Leadership Council to make Los Angeles the world’s first sustainable megacity. Then, in 2015, UCLA launched a second Grand Challenge to cut depression in half by 2050 and eliminate it by the end of the century. To that end, UCLA has commenced demonstration projects in preparation for a 100,000 person study and has begun screening students for depression and anxiety and providing treatment for students who need it.

UCLA is not alone in pursuing the Grand Challenges of the 21st century. Today, the university is releasing a new report on University-Led Grand Challenges, which documents how nearly 20 universities are leading Grand Challenge programs that are rallying research communities to contribute to solving a major societal challenge; attracting new investment and resources; demonstrating value of university research; and engaging students, partners, the broader community and the public.

Grand Challenges—also known as “moonshots”—are ambitious goals that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination, increase support for policies and investments that foster innovation, and serve as compelling “North Stars” for cross-sector and multi-disciplinary collaboration. From President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth, to the Obama White House’s cross-sector call to action to make progress towards Grand Challenges as part of a national strategy for American innovation, Grand Challenges have a history of catalyzing innovation for the benefit of society.

In October, 2017, participants in a Workshop and Strategy Session on University-Led Grand Challenges at UCLA identified opportunities, detailed in the new report, for universities to further advance these efforts through a new collaborative Community of Practice. “This report will provide a useful roadmap for universities that are interested in pursuing a Grand Challenge,” said Tom Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer of Schmidt Futures, in a statement. “Eric Schmidt was delighted to support this workshop, given his interest in harnessing advances in science and technology to address some of our toughest challenges. Our hope is that more universities and their partners will identify a moonshot that they are willing to tackle.”

Universities embarking on Grand Challenge efforts are traversing new terrain—they are making commitments about research deliverables rather than simply committing to invest in efforts related to a particular subject. To mitigate risk, the universities that have entered this space are informally consulting with others regarding effective strategies, but the entire community would benefit from a more formal structure for identifying and sharing “what works.” To address this need, the new Community of Practice for University-Led Grand Challenges—launched at the October 2017 workshop—aims to provide peer support to leaders of university Grand Challenge programs, and to accelerate the adoption of Grand Challenge approaches at more universities supported by cross-sector partnerships.

The university community has identified extensive opportunities for collaboration on these Grand Challenge programs with other sectors:

  • Philanthropy can support the development of new Grand Challenge programs at more universities by establishing planning and administration grant programs, convening experts, and providing funding support for documenting these models through white papers and other publications and for evaluation of these programs over time.
  • Relevant associations and professional development organizations can host learning sessions about Grand Challenges for university leaders and professionals.
  • Companies can collaborate with universities on Grand Challenges research, act as sponsors and hosts for university-led programs and activities, and offer leaders, experts, and other personnel for volunteer advisory roles and tours of duties at universities.
  • Federal, State, and local governments and elected officials can provide support for collaboration among government agencies and offices and the research community on Grand Challenges.

Today’s global society faces pressing, complex challenges across many domains—including health, environment, and social justice. Science (including social sciences), technology, the arts, and humanities have critical roles to play in addressing these challenges and building a bright and prosperous future. Universities are hubs for discovery, building new knowledge, and changing understanding of the world. The public values the role universities play in education; yet as a sector, universities are less effective at highlighting their roles as the catalysts of new industries, homes for the fundamental science that leads to new treatments and products, or sources of the evidence on which policy decisions should be made.

By coming together as universities, collaborating with partners, and aiming for ambitious goals to address problems that might seem unsolvable, universities can show commitment to their communities and become beacons of hope.

The new report—and the October 2017 Workshop and Strategy Session on University-Led Grand Challenges at UCLA—were made possible through the generosity of Eric and Wendy Schmidt. 

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How Universities Are Tackling Society's Grand Challenges