Grand Challenges

University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty, staff and students will collaborate this summer in a process to identify the university’s grand challenges – major societal issues that can be solved only through interdisciplinary collaboration. Chancellor Ronnie Green named this process as a goal of UNL’s N|2025 strategic plan in order to identify large problems facing our community, nation and world. Participants in these discussions are encouraged to offer perspectives that will help shape Nebraska’s trajectory for the next five years and beyond.


Identifying a suite of grand challenges is one aim of the N|2025 strategic plan that was outlined in Chancellor Ronnie Green’s 2020 State of Our University address. The full suite of grand challenges will include up to three themes identified during this summer’s workshops and those outlined in the State of Our University address: early childhood education and development, sustainable water and food security, and resiliency in our changing climate.


The virtual, multi-stage process will be facilitated by the UNL Office of Research and Economic Development on behalf of the Office of the Chancellor. It will comprise seven stages, starting June 5 and concluding mid-July, after which the selected grand challenges will be announced with the start of the 2020-21 academic year. The identified grand challenges themes will help guide activities and talent and be used to guide institutional investment and resource allocation. For questions about the process, contact Nathan Meier, assistant vice chancellor for research.


Answers to questions related to the grand challenges process are provided here. Additional questions may be submitted to Nathan Meier, assistant vice chancellor for research. 

At Nebraska, every person and every interaction matters. The grand challenges we pursue must reflect the breadth of research, scholarly and creative activity happening across campus. By recognizing how our combined strengths and expertise can be leveraged to solve our greatest problems, UNL can have major impact on our community, country and world.

Chancellor Ronnie Green
June 5, 3-4:30 p.m.

Stage 1: Introducing the process

Format: Webinar
Participants: Faculty, staff and students

UNL leadership will inform participants about the goals for this initiative, identify opportunities and discuss planning and goal setting. Michelle Popowitz, University of California, Los Angeles, assistant vice chancellor for research and co-founder of UCLA Grand Challenges, will share her insights on how grand challenges can help an institution focus on a set of common goals to fulfill its mission.

Stage 1 Video & Resources

June 9, 1-2 p.m.

Stage 2: Understanding the Nebraska context

Format: Live forum, virtual Q&A
Participants: Faculty, staff and students

This online forum will enable participants to discuss opportunities and challenges presented in the resources provided June 5 or introduce new topics and resources. A virtual Q&A will allow for clarification and additional information sharing. Resources will be provided for review from organizations including the Blueprint Nebraska; National Academy of Sciences; National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas; Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey; Nebraska Rural Poll; Bureau of Business Research; UNL Extension; and UNL’s Office of Research and Economic Development.

Stage 2 Video & Resources

Stage 3: Determining selection criteria

Format: Online survey
Participants: Participants from Stages 1 and 2 and deans, associate deans and department executive officers

This UNL-led activity will establish the criteria to evaluate the final set of proposed grand challenge themes based on a survey of participants. Survey results will be reviewed by a steering committee that will recommend three to five evaluation criteria to the executive leadership team.

June 12, 2-4 p.m.

Stage 4: Collecting ideas

Format: Facilitators from Knowinnovation, the consultant that supported UNL’s NU FEWS 2016 scoping workshop, will conduct an intensive microlab focused on generating ideas for UNL’s Grand Challenge themes.
Participants: Faculty, staff and students.

Facilitators from Knowinnovation will conduct an intensive microlab focused on generating ideas for UNL’s Grand Challenge themes. Virtual breakout rooms will convene to capture participants’ suggestions. The latter half of the lab will be spent grouping themes, which may be further refined by the steering committee prior to the next stage.

June 26, 2-4 p.m.

Stage 5: Exploring potential themes

Format: Live virtual discussion
Participants: Faculty, staff and students

Knowinnovation will lead discussion evaluating identified themes for final selection, using criteria established during Stage 3. The number of potential themes will be significantly narrowed.

June 26 to July 6

Stage 6: Selecting the most promising themes

Format: Email reviews (convening via Zoom, as needed)
Participants: External experts, steering committee, Executive Leadership Team

The steering committee will identify and recruit a panel of external experts to review the Stage 5 work products based on the evaluation criteria established during Stage 3. Reviewers’ feedback will be summarized and recommendations for two or three new grand challenge themes will be made to the executive leadership team.

late July

Stage 7: Drafting the final portfolio

Format: Virtual writing workshop
Participants: Faculty, administrators and staff

Participants will outline, draft and review descriptions of each of the remaining potential Grand Challenges to include a vision, context and rationale for its selection; provide an inventory of UNL’s strengths and assets and those that are needed to tackle the challenge; and offer a list of the types of related steps the campus should consider pursuing in the next five years and beyond.

The final grand challenges themes were identified:
• Anti-racism and racial equity
• Climate resilience
• Community and economic vitality
• Early childhood education and development
• Health equity
• Quantum science and engineering
• Science, engineering, and technology for society
• Sustainable food and water security

Nov. 19-Dec. 8

Final phase: Describing themes

Format: Zoom
Participants: Faculty and staff

The Office of Research and Economic Development will host three online sessions organized to guide writers through a process for preparing grand challenge theme descriptions:

• Nov. 19, 10-11 a.m.: Theme description writing kickoff meeting
• Dec. 1, 10-11:30 a.m.: Theme writing check-in meeting
• Dec. 8, 10-11 a.m.: Theme description handoff meeting

Registration required.

Final Stage Video & Resources