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Tackling the World’s Grand Challenges

George Mason University has long prided itself on innovation and meeting the needs of our students, the region, and beyond. The world changed in 2020 in ways no one could have anticipated, and so have we.

The engineering world has called them “grand challenges.” The United Nations calls them “sustainable development goals.” These are the problems plaguing the planet that can’t be tackled by one person, one university, or even one country—climate change, social justice, the opioid crisis, and COVID-19, to name a few.

“Great research universities tackle the grand-challenge problems of our time,” says George Mason University President Gregory Washington. “We call it research of consequence for a reason—we face serious consequences as a planet if we cannot solve our most pressing global challenges.”

As Virginia’s largest public research university, Mason is committed to being part of the many solutions the world needs. Faculty researchers at the forefront of their fields and our innovative students—all committed to making real change happen—are helping Mason make an impact in the United States and abroad with their inventions, scholarship, and analysis.

The university has pinpointed four key areas where Mason hopes to move the needle and contribute on a large scale: healthy planet, healthy people, healthy economy, and healthy society. These challenges affect all of us regardless of who we are or where we live. By making inroads in these four areas, Mason will be making a global impact for years to come. 

Healthy Planet

Wildfires raging unchecked, rising global temperatures and sea levels, drought on one side of the planet and hurricanes on the other—current and future generations must be ready to face climate change-related challenges. One thing is clear: No country will be able to proceed into the future unscathed. Paving the way to a healthy planet and finding a way to thrive in this new reality requires a multifaceted approach that crosses disciplines and traditional ways of thinking. Here are some of Mason’s efforts to innovate solutions:

Healthy People

The coronavirus pandemic has put public health in the spotlight and brought the health disparities that exist across social, racial, and economic groups into sharper focus. Mason researchers are exploring disease detection, treatment, and prevention. A public health focus in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services helps position the university to be a leader in health and well-being in the region. Here are a few of the projects that made a difference this year:

Healthy Economy

Accelerated by the pandemic, the nation’s economy has endured drastic changes in the past year. Up to 40 percent of jobs lost in 2020 are likely gone forever, and the unemployment rate of college graduates is at its highest since the Great Depression.

With small businesses shuttering and companies having to quickly adapt to remote-work culture, revitalizing the economy will take time and ingenuity. Given the links between a healthy regional economy, a robust workforce, and an innovative university, Mason is critical to the region’s economic success.

Healthy Society 

These are turbulent times. The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred a necessary national dialogue on race and policing, and the recent presidential election has left us a country divided. Cyberattacks on the United States show the critical need to fortify our data networks. And we can’t forget the lives lost to the global pandemic, as well as COVID-19’s often crippling effect on worldwide economies, travel, and trade. Here are a few of the efforts Mason is making to affect change in the United States and abroad:

Melanie Balog, Priyanka Champaneri, BA ’05, MFA ’10, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95, contributed to this article.