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What Universities Get Right -- and Wrong -- About Grand Challenges

The three are: 1) Planet Texas 2050 (“Making Texas resilient is our grand challenge”), 2) Whole Communities, Whole Health (“Changing the way science helps society thrive is our grand challenge”) and 3) Good Systems (“Our goal: find ways to ensure that artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies are beneficial -- not detrimental -- to society”).

Yet while the announcement and launch of such initiatives may drum up attention, the concrete steps required to execute them don’t coexist comfortably with the existing institutional structures, resources and incentives of large research universities.

For years, university researchers have produced notable social benefits in a wide range of areas: the green revolution in agriculture, the origins of computing, models for weather forecasting, techniques to survey public opinion, the development of early childhood intervention and the algorithm for Google searching, among others.

Since public universities face more direct and urgent needs for public support than private universities, we are not surprised to find that public universities in the American Association of Universities are more likely than private universities to make explicit commitments to grand challenges (59percent versus 23percent).

Making the teams successful requires ingredients that are in short supply on most campuses, including: While most universities invest energy in the launch and initial collaborative efforts to form teams around grand challenges, far fewer have invested in continued leadership engagement, central funding and long-term staff support.

To illustrate what is needed to make progress possible, Indiana University and the University of Texas built infrastructure to support interdisciplinary teams through up-front funding, planning between and across challenges, and assigning professional staff to support the teams.

When academic departments reward faculty members for high prestige, discipline-based, individual accomplishments, they cannot reasonably hope that those faculty members will instead work with colleagues from other disciplines and external partners on grand challenges.

Some universities have found ways to carve out multiyear support to reward faculty leaders of grand-challenge initiatives, but few have explored ways to keep other faculty members and research staff engaged over the long haul.

While money alone is no guarantee of success, sustained support over time gives credibility to a university’s claim of commitment and makes it more likely that collaborative work on grand challenges can take hold on a campus.

Each university can, and most do, track progress through familiar processes -- for example, the number of faculty members and students participating in projects, external partnerships formed, research results published, successful applications for external funds and activities mentioned in the news media.

To get a grip on this goal, UCLA’s grand-challenge initiative created a biannual report card authored by eight research faculty and staff members, relied on many more research staff, and published more than 90 pages of detailed analysis in 2017, noting that much more measurement work needs to be done in subsequent years.

The Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge Global Launch

Employing 40 million people, artisanal, informal, and small-scale mining (ASM) is a major source of the materials that power the global, digitized economy including 15-20% of diamonds and gold, 70-80% of colored gemstones, and about 20% of the global cobalt supply.

The Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge is built to tackle these growing problems by incentivizing and rewarding the creation and/or adoption of new hardware and/or software products, platforms, and digital solutions both on-site and downstream that will make artisanal, small-scale, and informal mining operations more environmentally responsible and socially equitable.

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