The Global Challenges Program was launched in 2013 at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Australia. It is a strategic, interdisciplinary research initiative designed to harness the diverse expertise of researchers to address real-world problems.
It was launched at a time when a vanguard of Australian, British and American universities and research agencies were reorganising efforts toward challenge or ‘problem-led’ research: a relatively new way of bringing together the disciplinary expertise needed to solve complex problems.
The dual aims of the Global Challenges Program were to generate and apply knowledge to effect transformational change, both within our region, the South East Coast of Australia, and globally, and to build UOW’s capacity and reputation as an agent for change with tangible benefits to its community.
The University took a multilayered approach to identify a small number of challenges in which the community of scholars was interested, where there was both disciplinary expertise and genuine local and global need. The consultative process was led by a University-level working party with a breadth of disciplinary expertise, and representation from all levels of academia. Draft challenges were then open to the full University community for feedback and review before endorsement by the University council, for an initial period of five years. As the programme developed, its leaders set up goals to cultivate research excellence while improving equality and diversity to support and develop the next generation of research leaders.
The Global Challenges Program threw the rule book out the window. We designed it in a way which would find and build different teams, give newer researchers the chance to lead, and measure their success in new and unique ways. We are not naïve in thinking that the ‘Global Challenges’ way is the only solution to achieve the transition to a new research and research leadership model. We do, however, believe that over the last eight years we were given a gift of envisioning and developing a system that allowed us to trial a whole new way of doing things. While not everything we tried was successful, and even those elements that were successful weren’t for everyone, these five things were central to our success:
Live your values
While a lot of time and money is often invested in developing an organisation’s values, what is often lost is ensuring these values are lived.
From the start of Global Challenges, we knew we wanted to be supportive and inclusive, and we had a strict ‘no-ego’ rule. This held true for people who worked on our central team, researchers we funded, and the community we surrounded ourselves with. We lived our values in the way we operated and engaged with our supported teams. One example that always springs to mind is when three male professors applied for a grant, but none could make the pitch session, so they sent in a young, female research assistant to do the pitch for them. She knocked it out of the ballpark. We agreed to fund the project only if she was named as an investigator. Over the year, we watched as she went from strength to strength, receiving external awards, and building an impressive network with government and industry, which led to her PhD in the area of that very first pitch.
The design of the Global Challenges Program was a blank canvas. So, too, was the way that its success would be measured.
We were wary that setting KPIs often has unwanted consequences, and can drive adverse behaviours, primarily focusing on quantity, not quality. Our view was that if you gave good people and good projects resources and support, then the outcomes would follow. From this belief we came up with the ‘5Ps’ as success measures: People, Projects, Publications and Funding, Partnerships, and Promotion and Reputation.
We knew that each team and project would have certain areas in which they excelled, and we wanted to ensure that we took a holistic view of success.
While our measures are still qualitative, what you can’t measure is the value to an early career researcher of getting the opportunity to lead their first research team; an engineer and social scientist becoming colleagues who regularly discuss ideas over coffee; or allowing external stakeholders to be involved in projects from their inception, and to co-create projects.
We encouraged new teams to work together; some of these failed, but they were encouraged to evolve their team composition or project and come back. Failure wasn’t seen as a negative, but as part of the creative process to get the right people in the room talking about the right project.
Be flexible and solution-focused
We wanted to make it easy for early- and mid-career researchers to do research.
This is illustrated by two examples, both involving local indigenous communities. One team needed flexible ongoing funding to support their engagement with local community members, so over the years we tried to be as supportive as we could to provide a baseline of flexible funding. This project went on to receive a major competitive research funding grant. In another case, a lead researcher was taking maternity leave when data analysis needed to be completed so papers could be written for external grants. We provided a small amount of research assistant funding, which kept the project from stalling and resulted in the community members receiving the grants that they needed to continue the projects. This is an exemplar for actively promoting solutions that challenge the paradigm that pregnancy and research are incompatible.
Global Challenges was floated when UOW had 11 faculties. By the time it was launched we had five faculties, but we decided on a three-faculty rule for interdisciplinarity.
While there are many ways to define ‘interdisciplinarity’ – and, like any system, this one had its flaws – its implementation brought some unforeseen benefits. We took this ‘rule’ seriously and sought to help teams to achieve it wherever possible. If GC was going to be successful, some teams needed to be introduced to each other.
We held drop-in sessions, coffee catch-ups and challenge workshops, and presented at and attended community and industry engagement events and meetings. If you needed a disability lawyer, a dietitian, a materials scientist, a human geographer or an artist, we would introduce you. If we didn’t know who to connect you with, we would find out or we would support you to find someone from outside our networks. As individuals leading and working within the GCP, we have all personally learned so much about the value of engaging across disciplines, and of the different languages that they employ. It has been transformational in how we view the world, and one of many bonuses of working with the diverse teams that GCP supported.
Situational and personal leadership, not positional leadership.
Over the last eight years, the GCP has been led by six professors, as challenge leaders and executive directors, and one director. This leadership structure was critical to the scheme’s success because these leaders shared or gave away power to ensure the development of leadership in others, and we all benefited greatly from this.
We can now look around the campus and see people who are Associate Professors or Professors now, but who were early career researchers when we announced our first round of funding in 2013. We can see the role that being part of the Global Challenges family has played in their development, and are hopeful that we have helped create a new generation of research leaders who will lift as they climb.
The Global Challenges Program has delivered excellent research with real-world impact over the past eight years. We are proud of our many initiatives, such as mapping the UN SDGs to all our projects from our fourth year. The interdisciplinary projects that Global Challenges supported contributed to many of UOW’s success stories in the Australian Research Council’s inaugural Engagement and Impact Assessment, which took place in 2018. Using our working model, honed over eight years, we were also able to respond quickly after the devastating bushfires, floods and COVID-19 pandemic in 2019–21. We brought people together, built teams and co-created projects with our community to address disaster response in our region. But we also made fundamental changes to research culture across the University, promoted inclusivity and empowered early- and mid-career researchers. And that really is a legacy of which the Global Challenges Program can be justifiably proud.
Tamantha Stutchbury, is the Program Director for the Global Challenges Program. Sharon Robinson is the Executive Director for the Global Challenges Program.
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