UCL News


Vice-Provost's View: What's new about UCL Grand Challenges?

1 December 2016

At the heart of UCL Grand Challenges - which we celebrated and reviewed last year, and are expanding and refreshing this year - were two simple notions: an obligation based on our founding principles; and an opportunity based on our collective capacity.

UCL Grand Challenges marque

The first notion is that our university has an obligation to apply its expertise to address significant social problems. From the start, nearly two centuries ago, UCL's professors sought to contribute to human progress, drawing inspiration from our spiritual founder, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. 

The second notion reflects how successive generations have fulfilled the vision of UCL's founders. 

Judged by quality and scale, UCL is among the world's leading universities. The astonishing breadth and depth of our expertise gives us a virtually unique opportunity to address human problems in their full complexity from multiple perspectives. 

It's worth making one fundamental point before I go on to describe the new opportunities presented by a refreshed Grand Challenges programme to the UCL community: the Grand Challenges wouldn't exist, let alone be able to deliver the achievements they have so far, if it were not for UCL's community of scholars, who are tireless in their pursuit of both curiosity-led research and impact-focused research.

" We invite the members of the UCL community to explore ways in which they can get involved in the new and refreshed Grand Challenges"

Thus, looking forward, we invite the members of the UCL community to explore ways in which they can get involved in the new and refreshed Grand Challenges that we are introducing.

Greater than the sum of its parts 

It is more than eight years since I introduced the Grand Challenges concept to UCL. At that time, there was already a growing multidisciplinary community coalescing around topics in global health. 

The insights of medics were being tensioned against those of anthropologists, economists, geographers, engineers, population health experts and many others. Together, they were finding common ground between their disparate disciplines, considering problems in their full complexity and working to develop solutions that were robust, sustainable and equitable.

Climate change quote

One particular set of activities in the Grand Challenge of Global Health reflects what is possible when we work together. 

Professor Anthony Costello, Professor Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, and the late Craig Patterson brought together researchers to address climate change and health. Their peer-reviewed Lancet paper of 2009, 'Managing the health effects of climate change', evidenced their claim that "Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century." 

It was the most downloaded Lancet paper published that year and has already received more than 1,000 citations. 

In order to progress this work further, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change was established, bringing together more than 45 European and Chinese academics and experts including from UCL, Tsinghua University, Umea University and the University of Exeter. 

Its 2015 report focused on policy responses to protect public health, finding that climate change was "the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century".

This, in turn, led to the establishment of Lancet Countdown, a collaboration to track: the health impacts of climate hazards; health resilience and adaptation; health co-benefits of climate change mitigation; economics and finance; and political and broader engagement.

Lancet Countdown

This year's UCL-Lancet Lecture speaker, Christiana Figueres (until recently CEO of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) expressed appreciation of UCL's work at the nexus of climate change and health, acknowledging its importance in the COP21 (Paris, 2015) and COP22 (Marrakesh, 2016) climate negotiations.

This is a striking example of Grand Challenges' impact. 

The 'challenges' of Grand Challenges

Collaboration of the types facilitated by Grand Challenges are not without their own 'challenges'. 

Experts do not necessarily find it easy to admit their areas of non-expertise. Differences in terminology and methodology, for example, require the development of tolerance of other disciplines' practices. 

A great deal of the early work in Grand Challenges involved building collaborators' confidence to go beyond their comfort zone. Much coffee, many biscuits and lashings of goodwill were required. 

Despite this, a growing number of researchers tested the water, and we were able to roll out UCL Grand Challenges programmes addressing Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing.  

Those programmes, and the spirit of collective utility that they embody, have grown. They have both inspired and supported the creation and development of many of the thriving cross-disciplinary, problem-focused centres and institutes at UCL. 

Becoming embedded in UCL

UCL 2034's Principal Theme 3, "Addressing global challenges through our disciplinary excellence and distinctive cross-disciplinary approach", was further indication that the Grand Challenges approach had been embedded in our university's psyche. 

The group that I chair, charged with overseeing the progress of Principal Theme 3, is keenly aware that our "disciplinary excellence" underpins our "distinctive cross-disciplinary approach". 

At UCL, our Grand Challenges initiatives are driven by leaders in their field, within a university where all advanced research is treasured and supported. 

A critical mass of disparate problem- and curiosity-driven research conducted by individuals and small groups is the bedrock upon which all of our greater accomplishments rest. 

To quote the UCL Research Strategy:

"We believe that a researcher working in an environment where a wide range of advances are being made, and which can act as a source of inspiration, has greater potential to be a better researcher than one within a narrow, deeply siloed institute… 
"Major societal challenges can rarely be addressed using the findings of a single research advance. We believe that the appropriate approach is for leading researchers to work together to build a cross-disciplinary synthesis responding to these challenges, linking into a bigger picture both their own advances and those made by other leaders in their discipline. We believe that researchers who fully understand the context, justification and nature of such research findings are better positioned to make this synthesis than non-researchers simply drawing on the outcomes of disciplinary research without such familiarity." 

I am delighted by the fact that, over the years since the Grand Challenges began, so many hundreds of researchers have stepped up to the obligation addressed by - and the opportunity presented by - the programme. Of course UCL thanks these researchers, but their real reward comes, I hope, from having their own expertise creatively linked with that of other disciplines, and consequently having their work magnified through engagement in cross-disciplinary collaboration. 

As the UCL Research Strategy goes on to say: "Through interaction between disciplinary experts - rather than interdisciplinary generalists - our collective subject-specific knowledge can be made greater than the sum of its parts." 

Reviewed and refreshed

UCL 2034's Principal Theme 3 rightly asked that we review the programme, five years on from the launch of the fourth (and, at that time, final) Grand Challenge: Human Wellbeing. Through that review, we were to "adapt them to emerging opportunities and our expanded capacity", in order that they "deliver significant and measurable outcomes" and "inform our teaching and learning such that our students appreciate the wider relevance of their studies and research".

This graph visualises the collaborations between researchers in UCL departments and divisions facilitated by UCL Grand Challenges Small Grants, from its establishment in 2009 to the end of the 2016/17 academic year

The review took place last year, and included extensive consultation with the UCL community. This resulted in recommendations addressing seven broad areas, as follows.

1. Expand and refine the Grand Challenges to reflect our university's strengths and the needs of the world. We re-titled Intercultural Interaction as Cultural Understanding and introduced two new programmes: 

  • the UCL Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology encourages cross-disciplinary approaches leading to the translation of insights from advances in science and engineering into prototypes and products with the potential to transform society, and the development of novel technological solutions to societal challenges
  • the UCL Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality examines the barriers that people face in securing adequate healthcare, safe living and working conditions, education and employment. It seeks to understand and overcome societal structures that limit access to just solutions or sustain persistent inequalities, whether by design or unintentionally. 

2. Renewed emphasis on achieving impact (affecting change in the world). We will increase our use of UCL's expertise in, for example, public engagement, public policy, and enterprise and innovation, and we will devote more effort to external engagement with, for example, community groups, policymakers, business, non-governmental organisations and others. 

3. Revised governance and leadership. Alongside a working group for leading each Grand Challenge, we have established a single overarching Executive Board, which is responsible for ensuring the alignment of Grand Challenges with UCL 2034, maximising interaction between each Grand Challenge, and ensuring synergies with other strategies and initiatives.

4. A more structured approach to activity. Each Working Group is defining its own strategic priority themes, and leading the development of one of six Flagship Activities that will draw on the breadth of Grand Challenges. We will, however, continue to value and foster 'grassroots' ideas, for example through our annual Small Grants scheme.  

5. Strengthening the relationship between research and teaching and learning. Our first steps are to introduce a Grand Challenges-framed undergraduate summer scholarship programme (to be launched by the UCL Global Citizenship Programme in February 2017) and a special Small Grants scheme for PhD students (to be launched by the UCL Doctoral School in January 2017).

6. Supporting the UCL Global Engagement Strategy, initially by establishing Grand Challenges-framed partnership activities with universities and institutions in Hong Kong, Paris and India.

7. Addressing practical issues identified in the review. We are creating fixed-term working parties to address: barriers to academic engagement at the disciplinary level; barriers to academic engagement at the individual level; the attraction of external funding and sponsorship; and opportunities for student engagement.

Find out more and get involved

We have launched a new unified Grand Challenges website, showcasing our flagship cross-disciplinary research programmes.

New UCL Grand Challenges website

Sections for each of the Grand Challenges describe highlights from our past work; our current activities (including the developing Priority Themes and Flagship Activities described above); how we interact with other UCL functions (such as Research Domains); the working group membership and Coordinator; and how members of the UCL community, such as you, can get involved. 

Please explore the site, and if you want to know more or to get involved, please contact Dr Ian Scott, Director of UCL Grand Challenges & Cross-Disciplinary Development, or the relevant Grand Challenge Coordinator. 

Professor David Price
Vice-Provost (Research)

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