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UF directs funding and faculty to tackle eight great challenges of the 21st century

For the 7.5 billion people on Earth, advances on the near horizon are cause for both wonder and worry. Autonomous vehicles, personalized medicine and networks of Internet-connected devices. Robots, biofuels and high-tech farming processes.

These advances and more have the power to improve lives. But how will they take shape? And how can we ensure they maximize humankind’s potential while preserving our planet and privacy?

The University of Florida is committing more than $17 million to an ambitious new initiative aimed at solving some of society’s most urgent problems while redefining the role of a land-grant university for the 21st century.

From restoring trust in the media and technology to putting Americans back on track toward living longer and healthier lives, the overarching goal is to improve life today on multiple fronts, said Joe Glover, UF provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

“This project is really a collection of moonshots – really hard problems and grand challenges that rely on collaboration among colleagues from all areas of the university,” Glover said.  “It takes a comprehensive research university to do these things – where the voyage and the discoveries along the way are perhaps even more important than the final goal.”

Revising UF’s Mission

Glover considers this initiative to be an update of UF’s historic land-grant mission.

“Few people actually remember what land grant means,” he said.

At its heart, the Morrill Act, which established land-grant institutions in 1862, was intended to improve lives for the common man by funneling universities’ teaching, research and service resources toward society’s most important fields. At that time, agriculture and the mechanical arts were the main occupations.

In this modernization of the mission, UF will focus on eight research areas that address complex challenges of modern life and harness the diverse expertise of UF’s faculty and researchers across campus and in facilities around the state, nation and world. (See the list, below.)

Glover compared UF’s quest to solve these challenges with our country’s role in the space race.

Like the mission to put a man on the moon, which “made us reach for things and create things we never dreamed possible,” UF’s new initiatives “will drive and create new realities,” Glover said.

The initial timeframe for the initiative is four years. That doesn’t mean the problems will necessarily be solved in that time, Glover said, but the colleges working toward the goals will be required to document their progress each semester.

The Key: Collaboration

The timing of UF’s refocusing effort coincides with some big developments for The Gator Nation:

  • In September, U.S. News & World Report named UF the eighth best public university in the nation.
  • The Florida Legislature’s contribution to UF’s $6 billion annual budget is $1.17 billion, or 19.6 percent, the most in decades. This level of commitment is indicative of the legislature’s goal to support a preeminent university for the state.
  • UF is halfway to a related, but separate, unprecedented effort to add 500 new faculty.
  • UF’s fall 6,600 freshmen class comes from a diverse and record-breaking pool of 41,000 high-achieving and accomplished applicants.

“Together, these developments uniquely position UF to lead innovations and support the progress of our modern era,” UF president Kent Fuchs says.

He added that UF will build upon its reputation for being “one of the three or four most comprehensive universities in the nation,” with experts representing just about every field. That comprehensiveness, he says, is UF’s greatest strength in meeting today’s challenges, which are much more complex and interconnected than ever before.

For example, solving the public’s growing mistrust of news, media and technology will require ideas and expertise far beyond the field of journalism. UF media scholars are collaborating with engineers, computer scientists and social scientists to develop products and systems that can be used in the areas of trust, verification, data literacy and more.

UF faculty are also working to improve health for people in every community, because for the first time in two centuries, American children are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This complex challenge will involve an army of UF experts, from farmers to social and behavioral scientists to doctors, nurses and researchers from UF’s hospitals and a wide swath of colleges and  institutes.

“Without the diversity of our colleges and outlooks here at UF, any one college cannot be successful in addressing the future in this way,” said David Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “ UF has a unique capacity to do that.”

Gator Chris Malachowsky (BSEE ’80), co-founder of NVIDIA, a leader in interactive graphics and artificial intelligence, believes UF’s reputation as a top 10 public institution positions Gators to “address issues related to the onset of the 4th industrial revolution.”

“UF has the potential to make a tremendous impact for humankind,” Malachowsky said.

Malachowsky credits UF leadership for acting quickly both in seeking proposals and then funding them, because “the pace of change has increased dramatically.”

“We cannot wait,” he said.

As the next phase of UF’s identity takes shape, Glover said he and other UF leaders look forward to the contributions Gators will offer our changing world.

“UF is a place where students can stand shoulder to shoulder with faculty – shaping the future – and find their place in 21st century society,” he said.

UF's Audacious Initiatives

Trust in Media and Technology
Recent surveys reveal that the public’s trust in media is declining quickly, and technology is playing a major role in the erosion of trust. UF is rallying a cross-disciplinary team of scholars, media advocates, engineers and computer scientists to develop products and systems to aid in media and data literacy, verification and other technology factors that make consumers vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation, identity theft and invasion of privacy.

Scientists in Schools
As new information about our changing environment becomes available, UF wants to speed its delivery to a specific audience: the 2.6 million K-12 students in Florida who are among the future stewards of our planet. In person or through virtual connections, UF scientists will present updates on topics such as sea-level rise, red tides and tropical storms.

Leading the Nation in Digital Literacy and Precision Learning
UF aspires to be the most digitally literate and responsible public university in the nation by developing and applying tools such as virtual reality, the Internet of Things and big data to education and research endeavors. UF’s iClassroom will enable education and engineering faculty to collaborate on new instructional technologies that provide precision, optimized learning experiences for learners of all ages. Faculty in the social sciences, communications and law will address how society deals with issues such as privacy, security, bias and accessibility.

Migration Redefined
Florida’s large, entrepreneurial immigrant population and economically important arts and culture sector offers a unique opportunity for UF to connect artists and creatives with experts in innovation, entrepreneurship, economics, policy, science and technology, social justice and more through a new Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship.

Creating the Healthiest Generation
UF is focusing some of its medical research on two facets of general health in order to reverse the downward trend of life expectancy for Americans. First, UF seeks to eliminate healthcare disparities – the gaps or differences in access to doctors and medical treatments between various populations. UF also seeks to improve the treatment of numerous brain, neuromuscular and mental health conditions, from brain tumors and Parkinson’s disease to addiction and autism.

Maximizing the Potential of Every Child
The first 2,000 days of a child’s life are the most critical, with behaviors, learning methods and reactions shaped during this short window. The Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies will leverage strong partnerships across campus and with networks of leaders, practitioners and policymakers at local, state, national and international levels to develop an innovative, multifaceted communications hub to help guide early childhood practice and policy.

Engineering Cancer Cures
One of the single biggest challenges to brain cancer research has been the lack of human tumors to study and test. But now, a UF team of engineers and doctors has developed two game changers: a way to 3-D print soft human tissues, including cancerous tumors, and a new type of research lab that will help scientists accelerate investigations into potential cancer cures.

Coastal Monitoring Network
The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience will pilot a project that could serve as a model for collecting data on coastlines globally and on Florida’s own 1,350 miles of coastline in particular. Using advanced sensors, including new technology in development at UF, a multidisciplinary team will gather data and develop a database that provides a picture of the health of coastal infrastructure – bridges and piers – and biological systems, from mangroves to aquatic creatures. The sensors will detect early signs of infrastructure failure, contaminant release, and environmental and physiological change, and the data generated will allow real-time management of threats.

– UF News contributed to this report.