Grand Challenges: Why Hoosiers Should Care

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Recently, Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie announced the first of five initiatives to be funded through Indiana University’s new Grand Challenges Program. It was more than three years ago that President Obama challenged universities to pursue “Grand Challenges for the 21st Century.” Since then, UCLA, Ohio State, Princeton, University of Colorado at Boulder, and others have initiated grand challenges programs. The MacArthur Foundation recently made headlines, announcing its 100&Change competition to award a “$100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.”

So, you may ask, why has IU embarked on another grand challenges program and why should anyone care? I suggest four reasons.

First, scale.

Put simply, this is the largest investment in any research program—in fact, in any academic program—in IU’s nearly 200-year history. In total, President Michael A. McRobbie and the IU Board of Trustees have committed $300 million of university funding, plus support for 175 new faculty hires, to invest in launching five grand challenge initiatives.

Of that $300 million, President McRobbie has committed $40 million to the first initiative, Precision Health. Including an $80 million commitment from the IU School of Medicine, more than $120 million will be dedicated to the Precision Health Initiative (PHI).

Led by Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., August M. Watanabe Professor and IU School of Medicine Executive Associate Dean of Research, PHI seeks to develop better 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.

What does enhanced precision medicine mean for Hoosiers? It means finding the right treatment based on each individual’s unique factors at the right time, right here in Indiana.

Second, focus on impact.

President McRobbie said, when announcing the grand challenges program, that these investments will be “few, large, focused, and measured by their impact”—impact on individuals, communities, the economy, or quality of life in Indiana and beyond.

Of course, the state’s research universities have been engaged in high-impact research for years. But to sustain the public investment in academic research, we must demonstrate the impact of our work clearly and publicly.

IU’s Grand Challenges Program has provided new incentives for everyone in the university to think and talk explicitly about the value of our research, and its outcomes, to the public.

In the case of PHI, the goals are clear and ambitious: (1) cure at least one cancer through the development of new cell, gene, and immune therapies; (2) develop novel disease modifying or prevention methods for adult neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s; and (3) use gene and other therapies to cure at least one genetic pediatric disease.

Third, collaboration.

Grand challenges are, by definition, those that we cannot solve alone. As a result, all IU grand challenges proposals are required to involve meaningful partnerships with organizations outside of the university.

PHI involves prominent Indiana business and community partners, including Eli Lilly and Company, Roche Diagnostics, Cook Regentec, Deloitte, Regenstrief Institute, and IU Health.

The four other teams invited to submit full proposals all built strong relationships with a wide array of more than 100 external partners. We expect many of those relationships to continue and expand, and we are working hard to ensure that they do.

In addition, we invited a dozen industry, government, and community leaders to serve as an external advisory board to review proposals. They provided extraordinary insights that were invaluable in selecting our first initiative, and will help guide its implementation in the months ahead. Their participation has deepened the collaboration and sense of partnership between IU and other leading institutions in the state.

Fourth, strategy.

Finally, to make meaningful progress on the greatest challenges facing humanity, we are committed to making grand challenges initiatives highly strategic. This requires interdisciplinary collaboration within the university and beyond. PHI draws on expertise in more than a dozen fields, including medicine, nursing, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, statistics, business, ethics, and law.

The interdisciplinary focus of IU’s Grand Challenges Program has proved valuable already. Even teams that were not funded in this first round have found that discovering people with intersecting interests in other disciplines and organizations has made the experience a success for them. We are seeing new partnerships, new grant applications, and new ways of thinking—all before spending a dime.

This strategic focus is also translating into a renewed focus on efficiency and nimbleness within the university, making certain that we are not only investing resources responsibly, but also that we are reducing and, where possible, eliminating internal administrative barriers to collaboration and research success.

IU’s Grand Challenges Program has also brought with it an intensified commitment to transparency and accountability. The five finalist teams presented their proposals at public sessions in Indianapolis and Bloomington, and videos of those events, together with all of the proposals and other information about the grand challenges program, are available online at grandchallenges.iu.edu.

The concept of grand challenges may no longer seem like news, but grand challenges matter more now than ever to the people served by IU’s research, right here in Indiana, across the nation, and around the world.

Fred H. Cate is Vice President for Research, Distinguished Professor and C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law at Indiana University.