Editor's Picks


From the Desk: Vice president for research discusses the Grand Challenges Program, its history and next steps

June 20, 2016

Universities have long been research powerhouses, delivering new knowledge, new discoveries, new creations and new inventions to the world. The record of university-led research is extraordinary.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing sense that if we are to make meaningful progress on the greatest challenges facing humanity -- so-called “grand challenges” -- we have to be bolder, more strategic, more interdisciplinary and more focused outside the lab or the library.

fred cate


It is not that we haven’t been doing this type of research for years, but rather that if we are going to justify the massive public investment in academic research -- and find ways to increase that investment in the future -- we must be able and willing to demonstrate impact clearly and publicly.

At IU, the central part of our response to this growing need is our Grand Challenges Program, adopted by IU’s Trustees as part of President McRobbie’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan. Its goal is simple: to transform IU and the state of Indiana through a large, focused investment in strategic research projects.

IU is not the first university to adopt a Grand Challenges Program: UCLA, Ohio State and others have launched them. The MacArthur Foundation recently announced a $100 million program.

However, the size and scale of IU’s program is unprecedented. President McRobbie and the IU Trustees are committing $300 million in seed funding and 175 new faculty hires to launch five collaborative Grand Challenge initiatives over the next five years. This is the largest investment in any research program -- in fact, in any academic program -- in IU’s nearly 200-year history.

IU’s first Grand Challenges project

Today, President McRobbie announced IU’s first Grand Challenges investment. The Precision Health Initiative is a university-wide partnership dedicated to optimizing the prevention and treatment of human diseases through a more precise understanding of the genetic, developmental, behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to an individual’s health.

Led by Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., August M. Watanabe Professor and IU School of Medicine Executive Associate Dean of Research, Precision Health Initiative will receive $40 million in funding provided by the Grand Challenges Program and leverage an additional $80 million from the IU School of Medicine. 

As part of the Precision Health Initiative, IU expects to hire at least 22 new faculty members at the School of Medicine, nine at the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, five at the School of Informatics and Computing, and one each at the Fairbanks School of Public Health, the Kelley School of Business and the IU School of Nursing. The funding will also support 24 new postdoctoral fellows and 31 graduate students at IU over the next five years.

The Precision Health Initiative also involves prominent business and community partners, including Eli Lilly and Co., Roche Diagnostics, Cook Regentec, Deloitte, Regenstrief Institute and IU Health.

IU’s Grand Challenges Program

The Precision Health Initiative exemplifies four features that distinguish IU’s Grand Challenges Program.

First, the success of Grand Challenges investments will be measured by their impact --on individuals, communities, the economy or quality of life in Indiana and beyond.

Second, Grand Challenges initiatives must be highly strategic, leveraging the strengths across the university -- and outside the university. The Precision Health Initiative draws strategically on expertise in more than a dozen fields, including medicine, nursing, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, statistics, business, ethics and law. 

Third, Grand Challenges are those that we cannot solve alone. As the Precision Health proposal demonstrates, the involvement of organizations outside IU can strengthen research, enhance its relevance and help demonstrate its impact in the community.

Finally, each Grand Challenges initiative must be able to attract the external competitive, philanthropic, corporate and/or government funding necessary to sustain the work to successful completion. The Precision Health Initiative is well-placed to help the university compete for external support from the National Institutes  of Health, as well as other government, corporate and philanthropic funders to tackle vexing issues.

A historic day

Today is a historic day in the life of our university.

It marks a milestone in a 10-month process that started with 21 preliminary proposals from more than 400 faculty on six campuses. Following careful review, five teams were invited to submit full proposals. President McRobbie’s decision reflected the thoughtful recommendations of a faculty review committee and an external advisory board, as well as other campus and university leaders.

But today also marks the first day of the promising implementation of the Precision Health Initiative, and the beginning of the 2016-17 round of Grand Challenges proposals. 

I hope you will join me in congratulating and thanking Dr. Shekhar and the entire Precision Health Initiative team, and all of the teams and reviewers for the time, creativity and expertise they have generously contributed. Thanks to them, we are taking a major step on the road to addressing critical issues facing Indiana.

Read more FYI stories »