By the time this post is published, the Nov. 9 deadline for submitting preliminary proposals to the Indiana University Grand Challenges program will have just passed, and many dozens of IU faculty members will be breathing well-deserved sighs of relief.
Like several universities around the country also pursuing grand challenges–including University of California, Los Angeles; University of Colorado at Boulder; and Princeton University–IU’s Grand Challenges program is focusing research investments of at least $300 million ($120 million at IU Bloomington) on major, large-scale problems facing local, national, and global communities that can be addressed only by multidisciplinary teams of the best researchers.
The just-passed pre-proposal deadline is the first stage in IU’s Grand Challenges review process. At this writing, I and my research development colleagues — including IU Vice President for Research Fred Cate — expect more than a dozen pre-proposal submissions, from which approximately five teams will be invited to submit full proposals due April 15. By next summer, two IU Grand Challenge initiatives will be selected to begin in earnest.
During this semester, I’ve sat down with most of the faculty teams who have formed with leadership from the Bloomington campus. I can say without question that the research ideas being worked on are truly exciting, from combatting antibiotic resistance, developing futuristic speech technologies (think way beyond Siri), and solving cybersecurity issues to creating sustainable water resources for the next century and providing equitable health care and prevention to Indiana citizens and beyond.
It’s definitely an understatement to say that it will be hard for the Grand Challenges review committee to choose which initiatives to move forward. The good news is, although only two Grand Challenge initiatives will be chosen in this round, the energy generated by development of these pre-proposals is already having a notable impact on the research enterprise at IU Bloomington and across the university.
In my talks with faculty teams, I’ve heard repeatedly about conversations, collaborations, and discussions stimulated by individuals and faculty teams reaching out to someone new about a Grand Challenge idea. Here are just a few examples:
- IU Bloomington public health faculty have met with IUPUI and IU School of Medicine colleagues resulting in what one faculty member describes as unprecedented and profound connections and synergies among team members now working together in new ways.
- Faculty in environmental studies at IU Bloomington staged their own charrette planning activity to brainstorm about Grand Challenge ideas revolving around sustainability and resilience, again resulting in connections among faculty groups who don’t typically interact.
- Grand Challenge teams led by faculty in biology are reaching out to faculty in the arts and humanities to expand their approaches to studying human communities. One Distinguished Professor involved in this effort describes it as “exciting, challenging, and very gratifying.”
- IU Bloomington chemists, biochemists, computational biophysicists, and social science network scientists have established lasting links with IU School of Medicine faculty.
- A faculty member in education joined with campus and community partners to submit four research grant proposals — proposals that emerged during Grand Challenge discussions and would not otherwise have been submitted, including two to the prestigious National Endowment for Humanities.
Regardless of which challenges are finally selected, the emails, phone calls, and best of all, face-to-face talking that’s been going on over the last several months has created compelling alliances among faculty. Experts from different disciplines are beginning to understand one another’s strengths; faculty from different campuses are beginning to see that they can bridge the divide. From where I sit, I can see the campus and university research culture beginning to change.
And there is more good news. While it is true that not all pre-proposals will be considered for Grand Challenge funding, it’s also true that IU is committed to other kinds of research investment. At IU Bloomington, for example, we will formally launch the Emerging Areas of Research funding program in fall 2016, which will identify up to six areas of strong research promise. The campus will invest considerable resources in building up these areas, including new faculty lines, funding for postdoctoral scholars, for seminars and conferences, for developing external funding proposals, and for other collaborative research endeavors.
Likewise, IU offers the IU Collaborative Research Grants program, in which applicants can request up to $75,000 for one year, and the IU New Frontiers in Arts and Humanities program, which offers grants of up to $50,000 for innovative works of scholarship or creative activity.
As a result of the recent activity jump-started by Grand Challenges preparations, we now have already-formed faculty groups that enable us to be more nimble in responding to complex, multidisciplinary research proposal solicitations from external funding agencies such as National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. And expert research development professionals in the schools and in the IU Bloomington Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the IUPUI Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research are ready to work with faculty on planning, preparing, and perfecting grant applications for external funding (as well as for the Grand Challenges program).
Personnel, infrastructure, equipment — the scope of IU’s research support is broad.
Suffice to say, the Grand Challenges program is only one piece of our overall efforts to enhance research across the campuses. We want every research group and individual faculty member to succeed. Every team we have met with is proposing excellent multi-disciplinary research that deserves to be funded in some way. As we experience the positive ripple effect produced by people working on Grand Challenges ideas, my colleagues and I are eager to keep the momentum going, regardless of how a project may be funded.
With respect to the Grand Challenges program itself, we are, obviously, still in the early stages, and important pieces of the process are still being discussed: As a university, how can we best work together to ensure the most effective and efficient use of such grand investment? How can we meet bureaucratic obstacles and administrative barriers head-on to facilitate the progress of research? As we hire more multi- and interdisciplinary faculty members, how will the Grand Challenges process interface with the tenure process, which tends to favor specialization? How can we best support graduate students, who are often at the very heart of successful research programs?
All these questions and more tend to keep me up at night, but as a basic scientist who conducts experimental research in high-energy particle physics, I know one thing is true: You have to start somewhere.
As I look at the grand experiment of the Grand Challenges program at Indiana University, I’d say that our start is very promising, indeed.