Research initiative to spur collaboration on societal challenges

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A new research initiative from the Office of the Vice President for Research will integrate social and technical sciences from across the University of Michigan to address societal challenges that intersect equity, health, infrastructure and sustainability.

Bold Challenges, led by Dawn Tilbury, associate vice president for research-convergence science, is a two-year strategic endeavor that aims to align the university’s research strengths with global challenges and emerging priorities across government, industry and philanthropy.

OVPR, in partnership with 18 existing interdisciplinary research centers and institutes across U-M, will aim to integrate faculty in the social and technical sciences with external stakeholders so that together they can generate impactful solutions to six societal challenges:

  • Resilient, equitable and carbon-neutral physical infrastructure.
  • Sustainable and equitable solutions for the housing crisis.
  • Healthy adaptation to climate change.
  • Universal access to healthy water.
  • Better health outcomes through better built environments.
  • Smart health care systems for equitable access.

“By stimulating cross-cutting research and scholarship activity around these six areas, the university can leverage its broad expertise to develop meaningful, convergent solutions to these serious challenges and generate positive societal impact, all while increasing faculty competitiveness for large-scale funding opportunities,” said Tilbury, professor of mechanical engineering, and of electrical engineering and computer science.

In an effort to develop and refine solutions to these six challenges, OVPR has designed support structures and programs to advance these bold ideas, including a four-phase research accelerator that will support up to 12 interdisciplinary teams during the initiative’s first year.

The research accelerator will connect faculty and provide intensive facilitation for teams as they develop their research ideas, engage with stakeholders outside U-M and seek external funding support.

Teams also will produce white papers that outline the challenges their research seeks to address, including an impact statement that cites its potential significance on local, state, national and global communities.

As part of the initial pollination phase, OVPR will organize six workshops during the winter 2022 semester, each co-sponsored by multiple U-M centers and institutes, and centered around one of the six challenges.

Facilitated in partnership with the Center for Academic Innovation, the workshops are designed to help faculty connect with other experts across U-M, identify external partnerships and spur ideas to address research challenges.

During the team-formation phase, which begins in summer 2022, OVPR will give selected teams the support they need over one semester to focus their research problem, bring in new team members and engage the appropriate external partners, culminating in white papers that can then be used in partnership with government relations, university development and other units across U-M.

Selected teams will participate in the incubation phase during the fall 2022 semester. That semester-long program will help a cohort of up to six teams develop and articulate the value and potential impact of their shared vision of the proposed research so they can build toward potential research proposals.

A pilot incubation phase will run during the winter 2022 semester for research teams formed prior to the initiative’s creation, but which are working in one of the six challenge areas and will be folded into the Bold Challenges organizational structure.

After each incubation phase, OVPR will provide select research teams with staff resources and seed funding as part of the continuation phase to maintain their momentum working towards an external funding opportunity.

All U-M faculty are eligible to apply to participate in the program.

Teams selected to participate in the team formation, incubation and continuation phases will receive funding from OVPR that provides critical facilitation and project management support.

That funding can then help teams develop ideas, produce white papers to inform policy and funding priorities, and eventually submit external proposals that integrate both social and technical research approaches, and perform research that has significant impact in the broader community.

“Our university community has adopted a vision for serving the world through research and scholarship, and Bold Challenges truly embodies this vision,” said Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research and the William G. Barsan Collegiate Professor of Emergency Medicine. “This new research initiative will serve to catalyze actionable knowledge on these critical problems of our time. Partnering with centers and institutes across the university, Bold Challenges leverages our collective expertise, which is greater than the sum of the parts, to impact society for years to come.”

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