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What you need to know about IU’s Grand Challenges research program

Sept. 16, 2015

IU has announced it will invest at least $300 million over the next five years in a Grand Challenges research program to develop transformative solutions for some of the planet’s most pressing problems. The first two grants are expected to be funded in fall 2016.

There is a university-wide program, with initiatives in various stages of development at IU Bloomington, IUPUI, and the IU School of Medicine. Faculty are encouraged to collaborate across all campuses.

rick van kooten

IU Bloomington Vice Provost for Research Rick Van Kooten | PHOTO BY INDIANA UNIVERSITY

Interested faculty are encouraged to attend a second Town Hall meeting from noon to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 18 in Whittenberger Auditorium. A complete agenda is available online.

Inside IU Bloomington recently caught up with IU Bloomington Vice Provost for Research Rick Van Kooten, who walked us through the program:

Q: Discuss the pursuit of research Grand Challenges, and why the program is so important.

A: The Bicentennial Strategic Plans for both the university and the Bloomington campus call for the investment of significant resources over the next decade to catalyze research. This investment will be particularly focused on Grand Challenges -- major, large-scale problems facing humanity that can only be addressed by multidisciplinary teams of the best researchers.

The IU Grand Challenges program is a university-wide effort intended to advance knowledge, influence the future, and advance the impact of IU in local, national and global communities. Grand Challenge initiatives will traverse traditional disciplinary boundaries to begin to address our most pressing problems.

Other goals of the program are to transform the research landscape at IU through strategic hiring that will enhance the volume and quality of research conducted; to improve IU’s ability to compete successfully for more diverse external research support beyond federal agencies; and to create valuable intellectual property, make it available to the public through appropriate commercialization, and thereby create new sources of revenue for IU.

Q: How will challenges be selected?

A: IU anticipates funding three to five initiatives to address Grand Challenges by the conclusion of IU’s bicentennial in 2020.

The solicitation and review of proposals for the first round of the Grand Challenge initiatives will proceed with a two-stage process. This September, the Vice President for Research has put out a call for preliminary proposals. Approximately five of these will be selected for further development during winter/spring semester 2016, with the goal of developing and submitting full proposals by April 18. After another round of reviews, two Grand Challenge initiatives will be selected in early summer 2016, with implementation planned to start in fall 2016.

Other Grand Challenge initiatives will be selected in future years. Proposals not selected in 2015-16 may be revised and resubmitted in future years or may be considered for other types of research funding if appropriate.

The selection of Grand Challenges will be based upon the following criteria:

  • Addresses a compelling problem or challenge, the resolution of which would significantly affect the people of Indiana and beyond.
  • Has defined, achievable goals that deliver tangible benefits to the people of Indiana and beyond.
  • Strategically leverages IU strengths and existing resources.
  • Requires a multidisciplinary team that reaches across departments, schools, centers and institutes, and in most cases, campuses. Some teams may also include faculty from other universities or members from the public or private sectors.
  • Can attract the external competitive, philanthropic, corporate, and/or government funding necessary to sustain the work to successful completion.

A steering committee will supervise the selection process and will appoint a review committee that will review all proposals and make recommendations to the steering committee.

The steering committee will also consult with a community advisory board made up of leaders from industry, government and not-for-profit organizations throughout Indiana. The members of the community advisory board will provide guidance for IU’s Grand Challenges program and the selection, implementation and review of specific initiatives. Recommendations will be made by the steering committee, with the final decision being made by President McRobbie.

Funding for Grand Challenge initiatives will come from a combination of campus, school and university sources. Proposals that involve collaboration across campuses or between IU and Purdue University will be eligible for additional university funding.

A preliminary list of Grand Challenge initiatives submitted by IU Bloomington faculty during a May 11 Town Hall meeting is available online. Bloomington faculty are encouraged to contribute additional ideas online and/or to contact the leaders of listed initiatives if they are interested in joining a specific Grand Challenge initiative.

Q: What resources are available to faculty for a specific Grand Challenge initiative?  

A: Teams working on pre-proposals and full proposals on the Bloomington campus are encouraged to work closely with the Offices of the Vice President for Research, Vice Provost for Research, Vice President for Engagement and Public Affairs and Government Relations, as well as the IU Foundation.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research offers proposal development services to aid faculty teams in identifying funding sources as well as full proposal development.

Although “grand” in scope, the Grand Challenge initiatives will involve only a subset of campus researchers. Some research is necessarily not as multidisciplinary. To address this, there will be an IU Bloomington-specific program to make strategic investments to advance emerging areas of research based on IU Bloomington’s strengths.

These emerging areas of research are not expected to be as extensive in scope as the Grand Challenges and are distinct from specific Grand Challenge initiatives. One important criterion for funding an emerging area of research proposal is the requirement that the addition of resources will make the area of research world-class, either among many peers or due to a novel approach to some discipline(s) making the area unique.

Up to six of these Emerging Area of Research groups will be funded over the next five to 10 years, with a call for proposals occurring after the first round of Grand Challenge selections.

Q: What should faculty come prepared to discuss in the Sept. 18 Town Hall meeting?

A: The call for pre-proposals is available online. At the meeting, Vice President for Research Fred Cate will describe the initiative and the call in more detail and will field questions, so faculty should come with questions! I will describe aspects of the program specific to Bloomington, as well as eventual implementation of the Emerging Areas for Research funding program for the campus.

Faculty teams who’ve already proposed Grand Challenge ideas will be invited to an open-mic session to give very brief updates on their projects. Representatives of new groups are also invited to share briefly about their proposed initiatives. We’ll also be inviting all interested faculty to meet with existing faculty teams after the Town Hall in breakout rooms for more questions and discussion.

The Grand Challenges program aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a vibrant community of scholars, catalyzing research and building a prosperous and innovative Indiana.

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