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University Of Wyoming Professor Discusses Grand Challenges Initiative

one of several cowboy-themed statues on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie.
Peter Fillerup
Steamboat statue on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie.

The University of Wyoming (UW) is embarking on five projects designed to improve the state. It's part of what is being referred to as the Grand Challenges initiative. The idea is for the projects to provide either solutions for a problem facing Wyoming or find a way to improve the state. The five projects include rural health care access, developing next-generation, secure, digital platforms that promote sustainable energy, production, transportation and consumption.

They will also be looking at revamping research on campus, along with trying to find ways to bring Wyoming's wildlife and natural beauty to the world. Scott Henkel, the UW Excellence Chair in the Humanities, will chair a group that is developing a democracy laboratory. He explained the motivation to Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck.

Scott Henkel: We look around and see the world has problems that would be usefully worked on by public servants, by public educators, by researchers at the University. And many of us are already doing work in the state. We are engaged in and embedded in the state in a lot of ways. And the Grand Challenges initiative is an effort to build some resources and organization around some of the biggest challenges we face as the state, communities and the country.

Bob Beck: What was the process like to decide what you were going to work on?

SH: The process was careful and long and I would like to think very well designed. We began in the spring of 2019 having conversations on campus, conversations out in the state. Ultimately, we designed a process to have listening sessions, both here on campus, and also again, out in the state. We talked to stakeholders and partners and we also studied very carefully the ENDOW report, which as you know, is the result of having conversations with I think something like a third of the state's total populations. So we tried our very best to listen carefully, to think carefully, and then to go out and have tons of conversations with people to see what they cared about. To see what issues they might like us to work on and to see how we could continue to partner with people around the state to work on the issues we face.

BB: So how do you find a solution, what's the nuts and bolts of how these committees will work? And when will you get a solution? Does it have public hearings? Is it discussions amongst yourselves? Would you explain that?

SH: UW President Ed Seidel is fond of saying that if Grand Challenges can be solved in a decade, it's too small. So these are big, thorny, complicated things that we're talking about. And they are issues and situations that are only going to be solved, if they're ever going to be solved, by lots of people with lots of different perspectives. Lots of different skills and expertise coming together to work on any number of them. I should say, none of us expect that we're going to solve all the world's problems. And there's a lot of work, there's a lot of people with their sleeves rolled up working on these things and one hopes, that if we make people's lives better in the state, or help them see the world in a new way, that can help them help us to see things better, then I think that's a success.

BB: Do you have things you need to accomplish in the short term? Or is this as you suggest, maybe something that would just be ongoing for a while?

SH: We hope to be ongoing for a while. And we have just made planning grants to five different groups. Each of these groups are big teams comprised of university teachers and researchers, public servants, partners out in the state. These planning grants, true to the name, are like a little jumpstart. They will give a little bit of funding for these teams to work over the summer and into the fall a little bit, with the expectation that part of our work over the summer and fall will be to secure additional external funding from state partners, from federal agencies and from private donors. So what we have right now are five groups getting underway and hoping to find themselves in a sustained position as we continue to work. You know, I should say, no one should sugarcoat this. We operate in a situation where the level of resources we have are insufficient to the problems we face, but nevertheless, one has to get to work.

BB: How do you keep this from becoming one of these Blue Ribbon Committees where people get together and come up with a nice document and nothing ever happens?

SH: The best thing that I can say there is that the people involved in the initiative, really do feel a sense of civic duty. They feel a sense of using whatever resources and talents we have to improve our communities. So one can't perhaps promise the moon, but again, what we can do...we hope to do.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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