Climate change presents growing risks to life on Earth, personal decisions take on increased significance in an age of emerging health threats and antiquated food systems impact millions of lives every day. UC Davis is a model for universities around the world, and how we operate as a land grant university has never been more important – especially because of our ability to make positive change.
Broad and often nuanced solutions are needed for the host of complex problems facing the world. UC Davis Grand Challenges was initiated to help remove obstacles to transdisciplinary collaborations and to use the power of expertise in our campus community to find more holistic solutions to some of these daunting issues. The initiative is working rapidly to bring disciplines together in new ways to advance UC Davis’ global impact.
“UC Davis’ extraordinary diversity makes it well suited to show how transdisciplinary research can be put into practice to improve the lives of people in California, the United States and the world,” said UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. “Grand Challenges will help our community make critical connections across disciplines and elevate the impact of the work we do every day.”
During the past year, Grand Challenges has engaged campus stakeholders to explore areas of need and how we should focus our efforts. The initial focus areas have been chosen because of their significance, the relevant expertise UC Davis has to offer, the opportunity for participation from the entire campus and the impact transdisciplinary collaboration may have on accelerating the world’s progress toward solutions. The first Grand Challenges are Emerging Health Threats, Climate Crisis, Reimagining the Land Grant University and Sustainable Food Systems.
“These focus areas represent some of the most pressing issues we face today,” said Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan. “We have people doing amazing work in each of these areas. Through their combined expertise and our ability to bring in additional disciplines from our campus community, we will see UC Davis move to the front of generating solutions to the world’s most vexing problems.”
Nominations for additional Grand Challenge focus areas are welcome. Grand Challenges encourages participation so we can harness the knowledge and abilities of UC Davis to help catalyze worldwide change. The recently launched website includes information on our programs, additional information on the selection criteria for challenge areas, nominated challenge areas, and how people can get involved.
Advancing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion is key to Grand Challenges mission. The initiative will create spaces where championing diversity results in more holistic solutions and is putting those people most negatively impacted by these challenges first -- including them as critical partners in the work.
“People are both causing and becoming the victims of the wicked problems being addressed in our Grand Challenges initiative. Unfortunately, the impacts are not equally distributed, and we must recognize and address how inequitable and extreme these impacts already are on underrepresented and marginalized communities,” said Grand Challenges Vice Provost Jonna Mazet. “We have the responsibility to keep these groups at the forefront while pursuing solutions to these vast problems.”
Work has begun on the initial focus areas, and Grand Challenges is moving forward quickly, facilitating transdisciplinary research collaboration and assisting in large-scale proposal development.
Grand Challenges has already secured $1 million in federal funding for the Institute for Pandemic Intelligence, which will continue to advance the university’s longstanding pandemic expertise, as well as move findings from discovery to implementation and train the next generation of leaders needed to combat future threats.
The program hosted a successful Pandemic Preparedness Roadmap Workshop in May. The two-and-a-half-day workshop brought together a wide range of participants to share COVID-19 experiences and ensure lessons learned through the pandemic will not be forgotten. Grand Challenges is set to host a series of deep dive conversations to continue building this community of pandemic experts from all disciplines and outline concrete steps to improve pandemic prevention and response.
Grand Challenges also helped organize our campus community to submit a food systems innovation proposal, allowing UC Davis to compete for a $160 million National Science Foundation Innovation Engine award. The application is in process and campus will convene this fall to discuss next steps for this work.
Planning for a multidisciplinary Grand Challenges building, known as the Solutions Hub, is ongoing. The building is envisioned as the future heart of transdisciplinary work at UC Davis and will be the physical extension of the sweeping programmatic work currently underway.
“Grand Challenges presents an incredible opportunity for the UC Davis campus to cross disciplinary boundaries and use the incredible breadth of collective knowledge and different expertise in profound new ways,” Mazet said. “We want everyone who is willing to be a part of this world-changing work.”
Adam Jensen is communications manager for UC Davis Grand Challenges.