Indiana University’s Grand Challenges research program and its potential benefits to North Central Indiana, the State, and the Nation

IU Kokomo Art Gallery
Kelley Student Center
IU Kokomo
Kokomo, Indiana

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Thank you, Sue [Sciame-Giesecke], for that introduction.

I am very pleased to be back in Kokomo and to have this opportunity to meet with community leaders.

We are, as I think you know, about to hold a meeting of the IU Board of Trustees here on the Kokomo campus. In advance of that meeting, I have spent much of today here in Kokomo for what is my fifth “day trip” across the state in recent months.

Earlier today, I had the opportunity of touring the facilities of Kokomo Opalescent Glass, the country’s oldest art glass company, with the company’s CEO, IU alumnus John O’Donnell. Kokomo Opalescent Glass has been a great asset to this community for many years.

I also met with a group of outstanding IU Kokomo students and faculty members this afternoon. And tomorrow, I look forward to presiding over the formal dedication of the $14 million renovation of IU Kokomo’s Main Building. This extensive renovation is the building’s first renovation in more than 20 years. 

The impact of IU’s regional campuses and IU Kokomo

My travels around the state—and my meetings with students, faculty, alumni, and business leaders—underscore the very strong ties that exist between IU’s regional campuses and their communities. They also underscore the countless ways—large and small—in which campuses like IU Kokomo contribute to the civic, economic, and cultural life of their regions and the state. 

IU Kokomo and the other regional campuses of Indiana University provide an education that is innovative, flexible, relevant, and accessible to a wide range of qualified learners.

The regional campuses are at the forefront of the state’s commitment to increasing the number of Hoosiers holding baccalaureate and postgraduate degrees.

Today, more than 36,000 students—about one-third of all IU students—are working toward IU degrees on IU’s regional campuses. In almost all cases, these campuses are also among the largest employers in their home regions. 

They also serve as invaluable economic and community development catalysts in their regions.

Nowhere is the impact of IU’s regional campuses more greatly felt than here in Kokomo.

Nearly 80 percent of IU Kokomo graduates stay in the region, using their new skills and knowledge to strengthen the local economy and enrich their home communities.

Chancellor Sciame-Giesecke, her cabinet, and the dedicated IU Kokomo faculty are working to build upon the campus’s many accomplishments—in partnership with many of you who are here this evening—and to strengthen the vital role IU Kokomo plays in the region and the state.

Catalyzing research

In 2020, Indiana University will celebrate its Bicentennial. It will be occasion for all of us with ties to IU across the state—and for alumni and friends around the world—to reflect with pride on all that IU has achieved in the previous 200 years. 

The Bicentennial is also an occasion for us to look to the future and to build the foundation for Indiana University’s enduring strength and set IU on the course for greatness in its third century.

TheBicentennial Strategic Plan for Indiana University, approved by the Board of Trustees in 2014, identified a number of goals that will help achieve this aim.

Among a number of other priorities, TheBicentennial Strategic Plan recognizes Indiana University’s role as a national leader in research and calls on the university to maximize its capacity for research, scholarship, and creative activity.

The benefits to the people of Indiana from having a great public research university in the state are profound. University research and creative activities are associated with increased growth and incomes in their surrounding regions through students who have received their education in a research-rich environment; through new enterprises and new ideas brought into existing businesses; and through the pervasive culture of innovation they help to foster. 

The Grand Challenges research program

As one of the nation’s leading research universities, Indiana University has a special opportunity—and responsibility—to drive large-scale research, discovery and innovation to help address some of the most pressing challenges facing our state, nation and world today.

Toward this end, we announced last year the establishment of the most ambitious research program ever in Indiana University’s history. Over the next five years, we will invest at least $300 million in the Grand Challenges research program to develop transformative solutions for some of the planet’s most pressing problems. 

These projects will address challenges that are too big to ignore—such as global water supplies; the availability of energy; infectious diseases; harnessing the power of, and protecting, big data; and climate change.

A faculty review committee recently selected five finalists from among the preliminary proposals to be developed into full proposals. A final decision concerning them will be announced in June. And we expect that a further one or two projects will be funded each year between now and the Bicentennial. 

These projects will involve collaborative and interdisciplinary research, and will foster the development of new partnerships with community organizations, industry, and government all across the state. 

Potential benefits to the region, the State, and the Nation

The five final proposals draw effectively on a wide range of strengths at IU, including health care and environmental science, basic sciences, information technology, and public policy and management.

While the team members of this year’s final proposals are faculty members on the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses, their proposals impressed the reviewers for their potential to address issues of particular importance to the people and economy of the entire state of Indiana.

For example, one team proposes to develop new technologies, data systems, and policies to ensure the sustainability of high quality water. As that proposal notes, water resources affect every human endeavor. Indiana and the entire nation face persistent water quality problems that arise from urban and agricultural runoff and infrastructure failures. As you know, the Environmental Protection Agency added a 300-acre plume of contaminated groundwater beneath Kokomo to its Superfund National Priority List last year. You are also aware, of course, of the discovery earlier this year of elevated levels of lead in schools and homes in Greentown. Our river basins also face periodic threats from water scarcity and flooding, as the devastating 2013 flood here in Kokomo illustrated.

The aim of this project is to conduct research that will lead to the creation of new tools for effective water resource planning and decision-making and new tools that can be used to address and reverse threats to water quality all across the state and beyond.

Another Grand Challenges proposal aims to create a healthier environment for the people of Indiana and beyond by translating 21st century research about chemicals, their movement, and their impact on the environment and human health into breakthroughs in knowledge for effective governance, responsible innovation, and economic growth.

While manufactured chemicals provide an undeniable benefit to humanity, tens of thousands of chemicals are released into the environment each year and the potential harm they pose to the environment is largely unknown. This uncertainty not only makes it difficult to protect human health and the environment, it also makes it difficult for the chemical industry to manage its risks—and the industry spends an estimated $2 trillion each year in an effort to do so. Indiana’s chemical industry ranks in the top three nationally in terms of production and revenues and is one of the top three sectors in the state for exports and jobs. As a leader in the chemical industry, the state of Indiana would benefit enormously from investments in this important sector.

A third proposal aims to reimagine how we conduct health-related research at IU by focusing on the profound health disparities that exist in Indiana. Ongoing racial, ethnic, economic, and other social disparities in health are both unacceptable and correctable. But overcoming these disparities requires a comprehensive approach that works with communities all across the state to provide effective solutions.

Another proposal would help communities around the state prepare for ongoing environmental and demographic changes—including climate disruption, urbanization, and other regional and global transformations—in order to sustain economic opportunities, protect public health, strengthen Hoosier communities, and maintain valuable ecological services. There is an urgent need for communities in Indiana and around the world to plan for change rather than simply react to problems after they become severe.

And the fifth Grand Challenge finalist is the IU School of Medicine’s Precision Medicine Initiative. Precision Medicine—an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person—is expected to transform biomedical research and the delivery of healthcare in the future. This field will become a major focus of federal funding of research and an essential need to provide the best health care for the people of Indiana.


As you can see, all five of the Grand Challenges final proposals have major potential for improving the quality of life for citizens of Howard County and the entire state.

Indiana University stands ready to partner with you now and in the future to help address the most pressing challenges facing Kokomo, Howard County, and north central Indiana.

With that, I will yield the floor to Chancellor Sciame-Giesecke to lead a discussion about what you see as the most pressing challenges confronting the region.

Thank you very much.