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How UCL’s Grand Challenges programme is connecting researchers with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

uccg04p22 May 2019

Since 2009, the UCL Grand Challenges has set out to inspire, enable and support cross-disciplinary research, and research-related activities through teaching and public engagement. The programme works to facilitate new connections between researchers across the university, and support partnerships beyond it, including with other institutions, in industry and in the voluntary sector, including community groups. Grand Challenges was born of a belief that our university has a responsibility to address the biggest challenges facing humanity, and also the expertise to make a holistic, positive contribution to complex problems.

This year, Grand Challenges is focusing on the ways in which our cross-disciplinary research can address the objectives laid out in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through this, we aim to support the UCL community in developing cross-disciplinary responses to the challenges set out by the SDGs.

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

The UN identified 17 goals in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the steps countries need to make towards eradicating poverty, tackling inequality, protecting the planet and delivering a just, peaceful society. By aligning the work of UCL Grand Challenges with the SDGs we are able to harness UCL’s expertise to contribute to the global conversation, and facilitate new partnerships, both within the university and beyond it. Over the past ten years, we have seen some truly inspiring research as a result of the partnerships fostered through UCL Grand Challenges, and we hope that by focusing on these themes, we will help to grow and develop UCL’s contribution to tackling global problems. We are also working with UCL’s Global Engagement Office, to ensure that the Grand Challenges and UCL’s Global Strategy work together to maximum effect. We must be more than the sum of our parts!

What we’ve done so far

Grand Challenges was conceived as a mechanism to help break down barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration, support new partnerships, networks and projects, and bring academics together to share their expertise and find new solutions to complex problems. Among the projects we’ve supported are the Global Disability Hub, based at Here East, which seeks to pioneer new technologies and innovations for a more inclusive world. The Global Disability Hub has grown from a series of networking events and hackathons into an exciting new partnership involving academics from UCL, Loughborough University, and the University of the Arts London to focus on how technology and innovation can be more responsive and inclusive for the one billion people with disabilities across the world.

Through a Small Grant, the UCL Legal Advice Clinic was established, to partner UCL Laws students with a GP practice in East London, to enable people on low incomes to access legal advice and widen access to justice. The clinic has helped people through welfare benefits tribunals, provided housing advice and supported vulnerable people who would not have been able to access legal support. It also helps students gain valuable experience of casework and insight into professional practice, and strengthens UCL’s connection to our local community.

More examples of what the UCL community is doing with Grand Challenges can be found in our blog, and on the website.

How can you get involved?

The 2019-20 Small Grants Call has just opened; awards of up to £7,500 are available to support cross-disciplinary collaborations that develop new ideas and deliver impact for public benefit. We support collaborations across faculties, and also between researchers and professional services staff, and we also encourage collaboration with partners outside UCL, including local authorities, community groups and charitable organisations.

The application form encourages you to consider your proposed project in relation to the SDGs and their targets. You can read more about how to apply, who is eligible, the projects we fund on our website, and sign up for the Newsletter.

The Grand Challenges: new collaborations making a difference

uccg04p28 November 2018

UCL Grand ChallengesThe research excellence of UCL’s staff continues to grow and grow, as witnessed by our publications, citations, research successes and our global reputation. However, we must also be more than the sum of our parts, consequently UCL’s commitment to address global challenges reflects our belief in the transformative role of universities through applying academic expertise for public benefit.

Today I’d like to set out our recent progress against that aim through UCL Grand Challenges, our flagship programme for cross-disciplinary collaboration with societal impact, and to draw your attention to some upcoming opportunities for your own engagement.

As an academic community, our understanding of complex problems is enriched and strengthened through the pursuit of both fundamental disciplinary problems and importantly by exploring interactions across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. They enable us to access new perspectives, gain new insights, challenge and test our ideas, and foster discovery.

Since UCL Grand Challenges was launched 10 years ago, it has brought together researchers from across UCL to help us collectively become more impactful. I would highlight five recent accomplishments:

You can find out more about the impact the UCL Grand Challenges has had, here at UCL and beyond, in our new brochure, Developing solutions.

When we launched UCL Grand Challenges, it marked a new approach in higher education, and many universities across the UK have subsequently developed their own programmes designed to foster cross-disciplinarity. We’re glad to see UCL’s cross-disciplinary approach gaining traction with the wider academic community, as indeed it has in funding calls – from the initial Research Council cross-cutting programmes to the more recent Global Challenge Research Fund and the UKRI’s cross-cutting ‘strategic priorities fund’.

Through its Industrial Strategy, the government has also embraced a ‘grand challenges’ approach, and we are engaged with the relevant team at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, including through UCL Grand Challenges, UCL Public Policy and the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose.

In the 2019 UCL Research Strategy, we will set out our goal to foster UCL’s world-leading research, built upon three key aims: Inspire and Empower Research Leadership, Cross Boundaries to Increase Engagement, and Deliver Impact for Public Benefit. We believe that by strengthening our individual and institutional partnerships we can use our combined expertise to make a difference to the world around us, and that this is more than just a lofty ideal – it’s a practical action that is supported at every level of the university.

I’d like to close by bringing to your attention the current opportunities to get involved with UCL Grand Challenges:

  • we have funding opportunities of up to £2,500 open for work related to Embedded Inequalities (Justice & Equality) and Health Systems (Global Health). Please apply online before 3 December. There are also upcoming funding opportunities for work on Migration and Displacement (a pan-UCL Grand Challenge) and Social and Ethical Aspects of Artificial Intelligence (Transformative Technology).
  • we are also hosting two discussions in December, ‘Free Speech in the Age of Social Media’, chaired by Prof Margaret O’Brien (UCL Institute of Education), and ‘Take Back Control: Empowering People in the Welfare State’, chaired by former Labour leader, Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP. Find out more and book tickets here.

The ultimate aim of the Grand Challenges is, to echo UCL 2034, to deliver global impact. We have a responsibility to deploy the collective expertise of our academic community to make a difference not just to each other, or to our disciplines, but to the wider world. We have made enormous strides in embedding a culture of cross-disciplinarity at UCL, a principle that guides not just UCL Grand Challenges, but also the UCL Research Domains, our cross-disciplinary centres and institutes, our doctoral training and many other initiatives. I’m proud of the work that the UCL community has done over the last ten years, and confident that the next decade will see even greater achievements for the benefit of humanity.

Professor David Price

Vice Provost (Research)

Your chance to shape our research environment

uccg04p6 March 2018

UCL’s researchers are world class, and we need to ensure that they receive world-class support. Since 2011, UCL has had a research strategy that was designed to help the institution develop in such a way as to optimally support our research community, and to help us all to be more than the sum of our parts.

The 2011 strategy (which you can read here) has now been reviewed and refreshed – so I need to draw on your experience, expertise and imagination over the next month to ensure that the draft 2018 UCL Research Strategy gives you the tools and environment to help you fulfil your potential.

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