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IU’s Grand Challenges program is an interdisciplinary, collaborative, transformative investment

Nov. 18, 2015

In September, IU announced it will invest at least $300 million over the next five years in a university-wide Grand Challenges research program to develop transformative solutions for some of the planet’s most pressing problems.

IU plans to fund three to five projects between now and its bicentennial in 2020. Each initiative will include up to 30 new faculty positions, as well as support for faculty startup needs, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, equipment and facilities.

Fred Cate


It is expected that five project teams will be asked by Jan. 9 to submit final proposals, which will be due to the Office of the Vice President for Research in April. An announcement of the first two initiatives is expected in fall 2016.

The project is being managed by Vice President for Research Fred H. Cate, who took on his new role in August. He recently shared a few thoughts about the Grand Challenges program with Inside IU:

Q: When you accepted President McRobbie’s invitation in July to assume your new role, did you know you’d be tasked with managing the largest single research investment in IU’s history?

A: Yes and no. Yes, in that Grand Challenges were very much on the president’s mind. They had been part of the IUPUI and IU Bloomington strategic plans, and had been incorporated into IU’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan that the Board of Trustees approved earlier this year.

No, in that no overall budget had yet been identified for Grand Challenges. Efforts were underway, and what I quickly discovered that those efforts suggested was that if the university was going to do something really significant -- if we were to take real strides towards addressing some of society’s most pressing issues, while at the same time invigorating IU’s research infrastructure -- then we were going to have to make a bigger investment than we ever had before.

Q: Where is IU in the process, and what happens next?

A: Preliminary proposals were due Nov. 9. We received 21 proposals involving more than 400 faculty from 20 schools on five campuses: IU Bloomington, IUPUI, IU Southeast, IU Northwest and IU South Bend. All of the proposals are available online.

Now we begin the review process, which will be led by a faculty Review Committee. The committee will evaluate each proposal and determine which to recommend to the president for funding. The committee can seek outside reviews if necessary to assess a proposal. In addition, a community advisory board will also provide input, as well the Grand Challenges steering committee, a group that is helping to manage the entire project and provide the necessary resources.

By early January, President McRobbie will identify up to five preliminary proposals to be developed into full proposals. The first two initiatives to be funded are expected to be announced in fall 2016.

Q: The Grand Challenges concept is nothing new in the U.S.; the first was framed by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1987 on the topic of high performance computing, while today entities as diverse as the Gates Foundation and the government of Israel have created Grand Challenges. What is different about IU’s program?

A: We have learned a lot from other programs, but I think IU’s differs in several important ways. First, it is highly interdisciplinary. Many prior grand challenges programs are discipline-specific.

Second, ours integrates partnerships with industry, government, community organizations and others outside of IU. We believe our research can be both strengthened and more quickly translated into practice through these partnerships.

Third, while we are keenly focused on addressing critical issues facing society, we are doing so in a way that provides transformative investments in IU’s research infrastructure, including as many as 175 new faculty lines, support for new graduate students and post-docs, and funding for new equipment and facilities.

And finally, IU’s Grand Challenges initiative involves more funding than many other programs.

Cate's work aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including catalyzing research, global engagement and a vibrant community of scholars.

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