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Complex Challenges Conference Awards Over 100k in Seed funding to Research at Northwestern

“I thought this was an amazing event and should definitely be continued to maintain the collaborative ecosystem at Northwestern!”  - James Gaynor, Chemistry, Weinberg

UPDATE: the 2nd Annual Complex Challenges for a Complex Future Conference will take place on Wednesday, August 28, 2024. Interested faculty should contact Kristi Hubbard for information.

On August 30, 2023, the Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO) convened 34 faculty from 6 schools and 22 different departments and programs across Northwestern for the Complex Challenges for a Complex Future Conference. The conference format was inspired by Scialog, a collaboration-building event model from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, outcomes of which have been analyzed by Dr. Danny Abrams and Dr. Emma Zajdela and reported in Northwestern Now.

This event was co-sponsored with Northwestern's Office for Research, the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, and the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy, and the primary goals included meeting new colleagues, discussing research challenges of significance, making connections across disciplines, and applying for seed funding with new collaborators.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Danny Abrams, NICO Co-Director, and a short presentation about the Scialog format and its proven outcomes by Scialog Senior Program Director, Dr. Richard Wiener, the conference participants broke into five pre-assigned groups of seven faculty each to discuss challenges, opportunities, and Northwestern strengths in the following areas:

Following this discussion session, participants then engaged in four 30-minute collaboration rounds with rotating sets of trios (or pairs). Mimicking the Scialog process, the collaboration groups were determined ahead of time using a homegrown algorithm from Dr. Abrams and the results of a pre-conference survey used to characterize each faculty member’s level of familiarity with each of the other conference participants according to the following scale:

Priority for constituting the trios was the “unfamiliar” categorization to ensure that each faculty member had the opportunity to meet approximately eight other colleagues throughout the course of the day, in addition to the faculty they met during the morning discussion session. Conversation in these collaboration rounds was prompted by the simple question “If you were going to work on a research project together, what would it be?”

The formal part of the conference ended with brief presentations by conference co-sponsors, the Trienens Institute and the Buffett Institute.

Then, faculty who had identified viable potential research projects throughout the day teamed up to write proposals for approximately seven seed grants of up to $15,000. Stipulations included that the proposal had to be written by faculty who had not known each other prior to the conference, the group could include no more than three faculty total, and faculty could be part of no more than two proposals.

By the stated deadline – noon on the Thursday after the conference – NICO received a total of 16 proposals from 29 different participants: 18 faculty submitted 1 proposal, and 11 faculty submitted 2 proposals. As a point of comparison, Scialog events generally garner a 50% proposal rate, and this conference came close to that standard with a 47% rate (16 proposals from a total of 34 conference participants).

The proposals were reviewed by a set of NICO-affiliated faculty who considered the following criteria in their assessment: 1) likelihood of successful outcomes, 2) novelty, and 3) alignment with NICO’s mission.

Ultimately, the following 8 proposals were funded (or partially funded) totaling $105,000:

Awardees are expected to provide a short, written report at the conclusion of the project, and they may also be asked to make a brief presentation during the 2nd Annual Complex Challenges for a Complex Future Conference, on Wednesday, August 28, 2024.

Quotes from Conference Attendees:

“It was interesting to meet people across different fields at Northwestern and stimulated some interesting conversations on topics I don’t typically think about.” - Guy Aridor, Marketing, Kellogg

“I met colleagues who I would not have interacted with otherwise. I hope that our proposals will result in actual collaborations, even if funded through other means.”  - Ágnes Horvát, Communication Studies, School of Communication

 “The fast turnaround seed funding is a great idea! I could have easily spent several weeks working on a proposal, or neglecting to do it, but the next day deadline forced me to commit.” - Michelle Driscoll, Physics and Astronomy, Weinberg

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