Delivering public benefit through grand challenges
Reported by Victoria Price, CSaP Policy Intern (April-July 2023)
At a recent roundtable discussion at Jesus College, Professor Jenny Gibson and Professor Mark Girolami shed light on the transformative journey of Nesta and the Alan Turing Institute, as they made the shift towards mission and challenge-led innovation. This article focuses on insights and reflections from CSaP’s Continuing Policy Fellows on the significance of adopting a strategic, mission-oriented approach to research culture and the challenges encountered along the way.
Nesta's Evolution and Mission-led Approach
Professor Gibson, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Chief Scientific Advisor at Nesta, started her talk by proving a brief history of the organisation. Nesta was established in 1998 to foster innovation in the UK, and initially supported an organic research culture, with a limited strategic focus. In 2019, a restructuring took place under new CEO Ravi Gurumurthy. Nesta's revamped approach focused on three missions: supporting the UK goal of net zero, halving obesity and closing the child inequality gap – all by 2030. The aim was to harness Nesta's creative power, inspire others to find new pathways to these deep-rooted, pervasive challenges, and take risks outside of traditional structures.
The Alan Turing Institute's Journey
Professor Girolami, the Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Cambridge and Chief Scientist at the Alan Turing Institute, talked about the institute’s evolution from its establishment in 2015 as a national capability for data science (and later, artificial intelligence (AI)). The Institute's governance structure involved five founding universities partnering with the UK government to support a diffuse range of research activities. However, Professor Girolami recognised the need to go beyond a university model of research and funding and pursue innovation and impact. To address this, the institute shifted focus to three grand challenges that – like Nesta’s missions – would ensure public benefit. These were environment and sustainability, health and medicine, and defence and security.
Fostering Creativity and Breaking Silos
Professor Gibson continued her speech by emphasising that the mission-oriented approach sparked fresh perspectives and brought a clearer focus to Nesta. She argued that Nesta could attract innovative talent and secure diverse sources of funding by framing their goals as missions. She further discussed that the concrete and measurable targets set within the missions, such as achieving net zero by 2030, provide structure, yet are broad enough to support a range of research projects. As a result, the pace of work increased, enabling individuals to make informed decisions about what to prioritise.
On the other hand, two Policy Fellows asked Professor Girolami how he ensures that the boundaries of grand challenges are not so narrowly drawn that they hinder interdisciplinary collaboration or create silos. Professor Girolami explained that one of the drivers for moving towards grand challenges was that the research at the Alan Turing Institute was siloed and that a challenge-led approach promotes a collaborative culture where different disciplines and perspectives come together to address the same complex problems.
Reflections from the Policy Fellows
Policy fellows drew on their own experiences of working in varied organisational structures. One participant explained how in their organisation they had decided against a challenge-led approach and focused on core values such as respect and cooperation. Another participant advised that during structural change, organisations should not be afraid to experiment, and should have patience when waiting to see the benefit of new programmes.
The conversation also touched on the global nature of the challenges both organisations are addressing. Nesta, being a UK-focused charity, has a more limited scope in terms of international collaborations however the Alan Turing Institute has been strategically establishing joint initiatives within Europe, North America and Australia. One Policy Fellow suggested this could create an international silo.
Overall, the roundtable discussion shed light on the transformative journeys of Nesta and the Alan Turing Institute as they embraced mission-led innovation and grand challenge-oriented research. While challenges and trade-offs arose during the transformation, the shift toward mission-led innovation holds the promise of achieving meaningful and tangible outcomes for greater public benefit.