The world is faced with several grand challenges such as climate change, chronic infections and pandemics, food insecurity, drug/antibiotic resistance, peace and human rights. These challenges threaten the very existence of human civilization as we know it today. Although thousands of universities around the world host research teams working on these challenges, there is insufficient coordination between these universities to leverage this expertise to overcome these challenges with the expediency that is required to address these threats. In addition, competition not collaboration, is too often the dynamic between teams working to solve these challenges.
“This requires that we re-think part of the mission of our comprehensive research universities and re-imagine how they interact. This has happened several times during the history of human civilization. And this must happen again now for the world to survive the grand challenges we face today.”
For the past 130 years, there has not been a major transformation in the post-secondary sector, despite many such predictions. There have certainly been innovations that have been introduced: such as the emergence of interdisciplinary centres, flipped classrooms and massive open online courses. But there has not been a re-think of the fundamental mission of the university with the exception of the United Nations University founded in 1972. This global university, with locations in five continents, is a postgraduate university focused on five interdependent clusters: peace/human rights, socioeconomic development, global health, sustainability and scientific innovation in society (the areas of focus for the UN). These clusters are ideally conceived to address the world’s grand challenges. Unfortunately, the UN University has a student body of ~335 and an annual budget of ~$120 million. Although the UN University has research teams in 12 countries carrying out important work to address grand challenges, the university is not large enough to significantly solve these challenges.
Imagine integrating a similar UN University model/framework as a key part of the mission of an existing network of comprehensive research universities. So many more students: undergraduate, graduate and professional could become involved in solving the world’s grand challenges. And the collective impact of large network of comprehensive research universities could undoubtedly accelerate the resolution of the global grand challenges we face. The number of students involved in grand challenge work would increase from 335 to tens of thousands and the annual budget focusing on grand challenges from $10-20 million to perhaps $10-20 billion. And more importantly, the efforts of the distributed teams could be coordinated and benefit from synergies that do not optimally exist today.
I propose that the UN identifies university presidents from 50 global research universities (from both developed and developing nations) to embrace this new “network” model of grand challenge solutions. With each institution being represented on strategic committees around the five areas of the UN University and develop a global strategy to accelerate progress on addressing grand challenges. An additional group of 12-18 leaders from academia, government, business and NGOs would oversee the creation of the network and the work of these 50 universities.
This network would be interdisciplinary from its inception and structured so that teams are incentivized to collaborate, not compete. It would have to be truly engaged across the entire ecosystem, beginning with K-12 up to lifelong learners whilst being integrated into the regions the universities serve. All 50 universities embrace values such as integrity, openness, tolerance and global citizenship which are embedded into principles of this global coalition. The UN leverages its global influence to create a new global fund of $5-10 billion/year to catalyze and incentivise collaborative work across the network, with a “match” mechanism similar to the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) to ensure that host nations are invested in the work of the network via universities located in their countries.
Santa J. Ono is the 15th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia. He has served at UBC since 2016 and also currently serves on the Board of Directors of Universities Canada, as Vice-Chair of the U15 Group of Universities in Canada and Chair of Research Universities of British Columbia. He served the Province of British Columbia as its Chief Innovation Advisor and serves Keio University as a member of its International Advisory Board. He serves on the Boards of Fulbright and MITACS and has served on the Boards of ACE and the Council on Competitiveness. Prior to UBC, Dr. Ono served as the 28th President of the University of Cincinnati and Senior Vice-Provost and Deputy to the Provost at Emory University.