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UNM tackling water, aging, addiction issues

Recently, columnist and poet V.B. Price recognized UNM’s Grand Challenges Initiative, launched by President Garnett Stokes last November, as “a move of genius.” Price recognized two of the problems this effort addresses – fragmented academic disciplines that do not communicate with each other and poor relationships between the university and its broader community. The Grand Challenges will indeed address these issues, but it will also do much more for UNM and the people of New Mexico.

Through a rigorous process that engaged over 160 faculty, staff and community members, three interdisciplinary grand challenges were selected: Sustainable Water Resources, Successful Aging and Substance Use Disorders. Each challenge was proposed and justified by teams of UNM faculty representing departments from across the university and external partners. Teams are now working to develop their plans: targeting research opportunities, engaging more partners from both within and beyond the university, and developing explicit connections to undergraduate and graduate academic programs. This initiative represents a large investment of time, energy and resources. Why is UNM doing this now?

In addition to building more interdisciplinary collaborations, addressing issues of importance to New Mexico, and fostering stronger partnerships with the community, the Grand Challenges serve as a significant stimulus to generate new funding to support UNM’s research mission. Decreases in state funding in the 10 years since the Great Recession have negatively impacted UNM’s academic mission. New funding – from both within and outside the university – for issues important to the people of New Mexico and beyond invigorates the intellectual and social life of the university. Creating a climate in which students and faculty work productively with community partners to address complex problems from multiple perspectives and arrive at tangible outcomes will raise the academic and research profile of the university. In turn, this will attract more students and support the hiring and retention of faculty committed to working in an environment of collaboration for the social good.

UNM has always had outstanding faculty who conduct ground-breaking research and is arguably the premier minority-majority research university in the nation. This initiative will harness and focus that excellence in ways that foster greater interdisciplinarity and community engagement. It also makes clear that research and education are inseparable at a modern research university; their explicit connection will help to shape the next generation of diverse leaders that will lead New Mexico and the nation.

Providing a stimulus for the university’s research mission is also essential for supporting the economic development of New Mexico. Research generates new knowledge and understanding that leads to innovation and new technologies to enable new business and economic activity. Through a robust research enterprise, we will educate the next generation of highly-skilled, scientifically literate workers for our national labs, industry and innovative start-ups. While the current boom in oil and gas production provides a time of relative financial comfort for the state, new areas of economic development are necessary to provide a more stable financial foundation for the state and the public education institutions that rely on state funding. Each of UNM’s Grand Challenges has clear opportunities for economic development and job creation. Taking a coordinated, broad approach to these areas enables participation by workers in many fields and opens new possibilities for future workers in all corners of the state.

The UNM Grand Challenges Initiative is a proactive and ambitious approach to finding solutions to complex problems faced by New Mexicans while also strengthening the state’s flagship university. By working together – across disciplines, campuses and communities – we can position New Mexico as a national and global leader in research and education.

Take up a Grand Challenge

Visit and join the Grand Challenges listserv to learn about upcoming events and how you can be involved.

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