NORDP 2018 Conference Notes: Ideas Lab Workshop: Starting a Grand Challenge Initiative & Picking/Proposing a Grand Challenge Topic: Issues & Decisions from the University and the Research Team Perspectives (Part 1)

Ideas Lab Workshop: Starting a Grand Challenge Initiative & Picking/Proposing a Grand Challenge Topic: Issues & Decisions from the University and the Research Team Perspectives (Part 1)


  • Eva Allen, Indiana University
  • Sarah Archibald, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Jennifer Lyon Gardner, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Michelle Popowitz, UCLA
  • Sarah Rovito, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities
  • Amy Spellacy, The Ohio State University

Thanks to our session scribe, Linda Vigdor, City University of New York! 

Key points from the session. We learned:

This session was designed to be highly interactive with the audience. A broad overview of key factors to consider when initiating a grand challenge include:

  1. What are the drivers for starting a program – how might these influence the design of the program?
  2. Grand Challenge Goals vs. Themes – it is helpful to differentiate between these.
    1. Theme: (-) not that easy to measure outcomes and hard to set up requirements to meet but (+) good for generating interest and engaging participants; “no failure” with a theme; themes persist beyond the goals and offer potential of culture change
    2. Goal: (+) easier to communicate objectives but (-) narrower focus than a theme; “failure” is a possibility – thus, harder to sell to researchers or executives
    3. One strategy is to start with a theme (for ideation phase) then narrow the theme to focused goals
  3. Management of theme-driven and goal-driven challenges require different strategies.
    1. Theme-driven: open-ended management
    2. Goal-driven: defined approach
  4. Get creative with funding approaches, for example:
    1. Sell institutional assets (e.g., parking)
    2. Generate philanthropic gifts
    3. Provide campus-based funding
  5. Ideation approaches:
    1. Pre-define a broad topic – bring people together to brainstorm ideas to further refine/define the topic
    2. Run open calls – ask for concept papers and/or offer seed funding grants to explore viability of ideas
    3. Organize topics around specific person with core expertise or draw
    4. Top down – topic defined by high level administration or by external partner to achieve specified goals

What did you hear at this presentation that surprised you?

I was surprised by the difference in focusing on goals vs. themes as an organizing structure when designing a grand challenge. Both have their merits.

  • Advantages of organizing around Smart Goals:
    • (a) unified vision;
    • (b) easier to communicate societal impact;
    • (c) promise of defined impact for participants;
    • (d) measurable;
    • (e) time-limited;
    • (f) roles more easily defined; and
    • (g) better positioned for partnerships
  • Advantages of organizing around Themes:
    • (a) flexibility;
    • (b) campus able to define or declare success at any point;
    • (c) inclusivity;
    • (d) scope can be variable;
    • (e) may generate more excitement due to fewer restrictions; and
    • (f) no predefined timeline or endpoint

What resources did you discover at this presentation?

What was the most interesting question asked by an audience member, and what was the presenters(s)’ response?

An interesting question focused on best strategies for picking teams.

  • Identify people known to be team players
  • Identify people who have the requisite experience, and/or reputation relevant to the proposed theme
  • Noted: themes proposed at general meetings can be hard to manage in terms of selection, focus, etc.
  • It’s also important to have a strategy to keep faculty engaged once they sign on to a grand challenge

What else from this session should NORDP members know?

The interactive format kept the session lively and produced thoughtful ideas.

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