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The UCLA Grand Challenges initiative began as a pilot project in Spring 2012 under then-Vice Chancellor Economou to bring faculty members together and have them collectively identify a specific societal grand challenge to solve. The idea was conceived by Michelle Popowitz & Jill (Sweitzer) Reddell, who first presented the idea to VC Economou on Apr. 4, 2012. He was supportive but skeptical that it would work, so he suggested that they be discreet in running a pilot. Shortly after this idea was presented to VC Economou, Michelle and Jill received an invitation and attended a webinar hosted by APLU on Apr. 23, 2012, in which Cristin Dorgelo and Tom Kalil from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy advocated for universities taking on grand challenges. Michelle and Jill reached out to Cristin after this call, and Cristin happened to be in Los Angeles. They met for lunch that week, and from then, Cristin became a mentor and advocate.  By July 2012, Michelle and Jill convened a group of neuroscientists to identify what brain-related grand challenge UCLA was uniquely positioned to solve. This was a more difficult question than Michelle and Jill had imagined. They formed three workgroups and began meeting weekly with them. By October 2012, VC Economou, impressed with the engagement of faculty, suggesting convening the next topic with faculty and researchers in the environment and sustainability space. Refer to the Timeline for other Key Dates.

Initially there were a number of drivers for us starting the grand challenges initiative: 

  1. We observed that we had a collaborative culture, but we thought teams could be bigger.
  2. We observed that there were a lot of people working on the same issues but from different points in the life cycle. They read different journals and attended different meetings, so there were few natural collisions to foster collaboration.
  3. Everything seemed to be a priority, which meant that there were not priorities.
  4. We were extremely successful with funding from then-current sponsors, and it seemed unreasonable that we would be able to capture more from those sources. We needed to grow and diversify our pies.
  5. Finally, we were in awe of the research discoveries coming from UCLA, but we recognized that they weren’t packaged in a way that was consumable for the public.

In sum, we saw the potential for UCLA to have a greater impact and the way things aligned made it seem like focusing on grand challenges was the right path for us to pursue.

Giving back is part of our culture, and so is the optimist spirit that drives us to think grand and be fearless enough to take action. We are inspired to face problems on this scale, and, with far-reaching breadth and depth, UCLA is uniquely positioned to achieve the goals of each Grand Challenge. Through sustained effort and the support of like-minded optimists, we have been driven to achieve the goals of the two grand challenges for the sake of everyone, everywhere.

At the start, there was no funding allocated for this effort. We were a true start-up initiative.  Faculty were receptive to participating even without a financial commitment because the process was intellectually stimulating, there was visible in-person support from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research for the effort, and it was evident that the research office staff were receiving guidance from members of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), connected by President Obama's interest in pursuing solutions to Grand Challenges as a key national strategy for American innovation.

The term “grand challenge” has been in existence for a long time, long before UCLA started its program.  And organizations have recognized the power of pursuing solutions to grand challenges.

While other campuses had programs which may have referred to grand challenges, UCLA was the first campus to initiate a university-led grand challenge that included SMART-framed goals with commitments to solve specific societal issues. 

While depression ended up being the focus, in fact, the first grand challenge brainstorming centered on “the brain.” Driving this decision, was wide and deep expertise across the academy, an interest in bringing more attention to the campus excellence in neuroscience, the fact that the neuroscience community was primed for engaging in a larger effort given a separate earlier report focused on strengthening neuroscience at UCLA, and finally great interest on the part of donors and friends in brain-related topics. Three brain research related topics were initially explored and ultimately the campus determined that the grand challenge should be focused on depression. Influential in this decision was the World Health Organization’s prediction that by 2030 depression will be the leading contributor to the global burden of disease.

Since 2013, we have responded to queries and shared our experience with dozens of universities and organizations across the world exploring research initiatives, public impact-focused work and specifically grand challenges. Organizations include the following:

  • Indiana University
  • Washington State University
  • University of Wisconsin Madison
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • McGill University
  • Arizona State University
  • Education Advisory Board
  • Columbia World Projects
  • New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • Luminary Labs
  • Osaka University
  • University of Auckland/Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Maine
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of Maryland
  • Inteleos
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Energy Bar Association
  • University of Tasmania
  • University of Massachusetts Amhearst
  • University of College London

To learn more about university-led grand challenges, please refer to the report published by Michelle Popowitz and Cristin Dorgelo in 2018. 

Learn more about the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge at

Learn more about the Depression Grand Challenge at

UCLA remains committed to the two grand challenges, but given the long-term investment required for a grand challenge, we are not currently considering launching any new ones. That being said, UCLA is committed to public impact-focused work and invests in various shorter-term programs aligned with these objectives through the Office of Research and Creative Activities.