Cornell researchers have the opportunity to take a long stride toward an alternative future full of possibility, with support from Global Cornell’s new Global Grand Challenge: The Future.
“We’re inviting faculty across campus to reach beyond conventional boundaries and the constraints of the present to propose a research or curricular project with paradigm-shifting power,” said Vice Provost of International Affairs Wendy Wolford.
On Jan. 29 Global Cornell opened what will be the initiative’s only call for proposals. Letters of intent are due Feb. 26.
Interdisciplinary teams of faculty and researchers from all Cornell colleges, schools and departments are encouraged to identify a research issue of global importance and plan a path to a successful alternative future that is sound, equitable and sustainable. Teams may apply for research project support up to $150,000 per year for two years, with the goal of gaining external support for an eventual research center at Cornell.
New academic programs or courses may be folded into research project proposals or separately funded as standalone curricular projects, eligible for up to $20,000 per year for two years.
The challenge was conceived by a cross-campus faculty task force with 15 members representing eight Cornell colleges and schools. In remarks at the Bartels World Affairs Lecture featuring science fiction and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin that introduced the initiative last October, task force co-chair John Albertson said the new Global Grand Challenge is meant to create synergies among people with widely different areas of interest and expertise.
“Campuses like ours were placed in these idyllic settings with an eye toward letting the imagination run free, but how can we channel a collective imagination effectively?” Albertson said. “What a fun conversation this will be.”
Wolford, the Robert A. and Ruth E. Polson Professor of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), said the search for a theme for the Global Grand Challenge began at a November 2022 symposium. Cornell faculty and visitors from the university’s network of Global Hubs discussed issues ranging from water and food production to space, knowledge and international cooperation.
“No one idea seemed exactly right,” she said. “In fact, the most exciting things to come out of the symposium were discussions about how to think differently about the future in any one of those fields.”
That realization shaped the task force’s subsequent discussions and report. The group wrote, “The future has become as much a crisis of the imagination as a crisis of ideas, policies, innovation and action.”
The initiative aims to provide incentives and connections to help scholars break out of disciplinary lanes, take a longer view and map concrete steps to a transformed future in any area they select.
“What we’re imagining is that The Future will be the way of working, the motivation, the approach, the underlying ambition,” Wolford said. “The substance will be much more narrow. It doesn’t have to be justice for the world or water for everybody.”
This is the second Global Grand Challenge organized by Global Cornell. The first, on Migrations, “was a great example of what Cornell can do when people come together across the university on a topic they are passionate about,” Wolford said.
She said the initiative, which launched in 2019 and began supporting interdisciplinary research and teaching projects the following year, has produced unexpected partnerships that are making a real-world impact. For example, an intercampus team created a website and smartphone app to inform immigrants of their legal rights to access health systems and public benefits programs.
“The takeaway was that if you find an issue a lot of people work on across the university that we're already excellent in, and you just give them a space and a little bit of support – connect the dots, make some introductions, provide some venues – there’s really so much potential,” Wolford said. “And I think Cornell is uniquely well set up for that.”
Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer for Global Cornell.