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

Not long ago, universities said they solved problems, Janet A. Weiss and Anne Khademian write. Now, many university leaders have upped the ante: their research will save the world.

September 3, 2019
 
 
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In 2016, Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas, announced Bridging Barriers, an initiative on the Austin campus to tackle “the toughest questions facing humanity and the world.” Faculty members were invited to identify society’s grand challenges; over 800 researchers produced 125 concept papers. These have coalesced into three grand challenges for the university to address in coming years, “one project at a time.”

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”). Not intended to “interrupt normal professor research,” in the words of the student newspaper, the university’s grand challenges are “a new outlet for all university researchers.”

Wow. That is a lot to ask of researchers who already have full-time jobs.

And the University of Texas is not alone in its ambition. Over the past decade, 25 research universities in the American Association of Universities -- along with dozens of other research institutions such as the University of Denver, University of New Mexico and University of North Dakota -- have announced bold initiatives to address one or more of society’s grand challenges. Global health, migration, coastal hazards, social trust -- the target issues are as far-reaching as they are complex. Further, many universities have committed to addressing several challenges at once. In the words of the University of Arizona, universities are now “tackling critical problems at the edge of human endeavor.”

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. The 2018 Report on University-Led Grand Challenges, by a University of California, Los Angeles, team, identified strategies that 20 universities developed to frame, implement and sustain grand-challenge initiatives. These strategies raise major questions about how to translate aspirations into real work on the ground, including the following.

Are New Initiatives Needed?

The current wave of grand challenges may be audacious, but it does not signal a brand-new commitment to social impact. 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. University research will indeed continue to make progress on some of society’s problems, with or without a grand-challenge initiative.

What seems new is the fanfare, inspirational labels that elevate the ambition of the research enterprise and centralized efforts to organize and shape activities at the institutional level. Compared to 10 years ago, university leaders today face less public support for higher education and more skepticism from those who fund them. One response to that dwindling support and growing skepticism has been to showcase the contributions that flow from university research.

Historically, it has been hard for the public to appreciate why universities place so much emphasis on research. A grand challenge is a vivid and inspirational way to drive home the good that research can do. 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 (59 percent versus 23 percent).

Who Decides Which Challenges Are Truly Grand Enough to Tackle as a Campus?

Depending on the institution, definition and selection can be top down or bottom up, and each way has its advantages. The governor of Indiana and president of Indiana University initiated their university’s focus on opiate addiction with a $50 million university commitment. The University of Minnesota held a series of campuswide forums, engaging more than 350 faculty members and the deans of all 16 colleges, to drive toward five grand challenges. When challenges are selected centrally, they are more likely to reflect the priorities of at least one key funding partner in the hope of attracting new resources. When the challenges are selected through a bottom-up process, they are more likely to mobilize faculty commitment and energy.

Whomever the decision maker for grand-challenge initiatives is, the president, chancellor or provost announces them. They are universitywide and engage faculty members across academic units. They emphasize multidisciplinarity, have a problem focus and are research-centric, although an educational component may be included. Grand-challenge programs incorporate partnerships with government, business and other civic enterprises to extend the university’s reach beyond its borders. In addition to new knowledge, they focus on social impacts and benefits.

Can Universities Get the Right Mix of Faculty and Staff With Differing Expertise and Perspectives to Work Together and Recruit Outside Partners?

Engaging researchers outside their departmental homes in collaborative groups often flies in the face of established processes for assigning credit and rewarding individual accomplishment. Grand-challenge initiatives need to assemble heterogeneous teams and empower them to work. Making the teams successful requires ingredients that are in short supply on most campuses, including:

  • skilled conveners to invite faculty participation across disciplines without pushing one agenda;
  • trust with potential external partners;
  • clear roles and responsibilities in work plans distributed among diverse units and participants;
  • flexibility in business operations to allow creative combinations of funding, faculty effort and student engagement; and
  • powerful communications that keep colleagues across campus and external stakeholders informed and engaged.

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.

Can Universities Sustain Multidisciplinary, Problem-Focused Research, Given They Are Organized Around Discipline-Based Departments and Colleges?

In many cases, universities layer the grand challenge on top of traditional academic units, each with its own processes that reward faculty researchers for disciplinary work. Faculty promotion, tenure and compensation practices usually rely on each academic unit’s expectations about where people will publish and how frequently they will publish and be cited by their peers. Thus, faculty members feel caught in cross pressures that discourage investment in multidisciplinary teams working across disciplines with industry, government and foundation partners.

That reminds us of a famous paper called “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B.” 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.

Are Resources Available for the Long-Term Investment Required?

Short-term, incremental resources allocated through existing budgetary practices are unlikely to produce long-term changes in faculty effort or approach. The University of Minnesota has invested $8.5 million in three cycles of funding to grand challenge projects. Ohio State University has begun to invest $500 million over 10 years in its eight Discovery Themes, with much of the funding devoted to hiring faculty members. 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.

How Is Progress Measured?

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. Such metrics capture important activities but are not well aligned with goals like “transitioning Los Angeles to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent locally sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050.” 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. Measuring the desired effects of a grand challenge initiative on society requires its own significant investment.

A Grand Challenge for Leaders

Not long ago, universities said they solved problems. Now, many university leaders have upped the ante: their research will save the world. Leaders who want to show progress on grand challenges will need ways to support intellectual engagement, both across disciplines on campus and with partners beyond the campus. Creating engagement in the midst of academic units organized on the traditional model is a difficult long-term project. It’s right to think that vivid, inspirational language will help people to appreciate how universities can serve society. But it’s wrong to think it can be done only with rhetoric and goodwill -- and without new capacity and flexibility at the core of long-standing institutional practices.

Bio

Janet A. Weiss is professor of public policy and business at the University of Michigan. Anne Khademian is a professor and presidential fellow at Virginia Tech.

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