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Leading by example: UCLA teaches how to do a Grand Challenge

New report is meant to serve as a resource for other universities

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As universities around the country follow UCLA’s lead in establishing Grand Challenges initiatives, UCLA has served as a go-to resource for most of those institutions as they implement their programs.

As the most experienced campus in this arena, UCLA published a new report to guide other universities through the factors to consider — and the ways they must change — if they want to succeed.

Campuswide programs that devote the broad resources of a university to solving a major societal problem have flourished since the 2013 launch of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge — the first university Grand Challenges initiative with concrete goals. In the last five years more than 20 university Grand Challenge initiatives have sprung up nationwide.

Sustainable LA draws on UCLA’s cross-campus environmental expertise from more than 200 faculty and researchers in engineering, atmospheric science, public health and economics, among others, to make Los Angeles a sustainable megacity by 2050. In 2015, UCLA launched the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, which unites more than 100 experts to uncover the origins of depression and cut the burden of the disease in half by 2050.

The two UCLA Grand Challenges led to new partnerships and policy changes. By raising the profile of UCLA’s expertise, the initiatives created opportunities to partner with government agencies, industry, philanthropists and other universities.

Even as Sustainable LA was forming, the involved researchers targeted their research in a way that influenced the city’s mayoral debates. The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge has since propelled UCLA onto a joint sustainability committee with the city, and has both informed and accelerated the development of a sustainability plan for Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the country. As the Depression Grand Challenge prepares for a 100,000-person study to understand depression, a separate component of the challenge — free depression screenings and treatment for every UCLA student — is already being explored by other universities.

“Grand Challenges empower faculty experts from a breadth of disciplines at UCLA to work together, develop new approaches and explore creative solutions — but we need support from beyond our campus as well,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Finding answers to these complex problems requires a variety of partners, including engaged philanthropists, industry leaders, our university peers and those directly affected by these issues.”

Michelle Popowitz, executive director of UCLA’s Grand Challenges, has become an unofficial nationwide Grand Challenges coach, providing mentorship and advice to more than a dozen other campuses one-on-one and dozens more through conference presentations.

“We’ve seen lots of interest in the Grand Challenge framework,” Popowitz said. “It’s not as simple as repackaging existing work as a research priority. UCLA has committed to solving two specific societal problems — an approach that represents a significant change from business as usual. This approach challenges us to be more nimble, with operations that can adapt to support our goals.”

As a national leader in this arena, UCLA was awarded a grant from the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Family Foundation to convene universities pursuing Grand Challenges, starting with a workshop in October 2017. The UCLA report draws from that gathering of representatives from 21 universities pursuing some form of Grand Challenge alongside several supporting organizations, including Indiana University, University of Minnesota, Ohio State University, University of Texas at Austin, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and more. As a result of the grant, UCLA has also established a formal network in which representatives from different universities undertaking Grand Challenges can exchange best practices, lessons learned and sample resources.

“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. “Eric Schmidt was delighted to support this workshop, given his interest in harnessing advances in science and technology to address some our toughest challenges. Our hope is that more universities and their partners will identify a moonshot that they are willing to tackle.”

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