Centennial Grand Challenges

As Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health celebrates its centennial, we reflect on the fact that through current and past work of our faculty, students and alumni, the School has improved the of lives of millions of people throughout the world. Bookended by two pandemics—the 1918 flu and now COVID-19—Columbia has contributed significantly to the last century of public health advancement. Despite the many public health-driven advances of the last century, public health has fallen notably short of its aspirations. Significant health disparities persist and our longer lives are often lived in ill-health. These and other shortfalls reflect the public and government’s failure to truly appreciate public health’s significance, seen in the following: while 60% to 70% of health is attributed to public health factors, only 3% of U.S. health dollars go towards public health research and practice. This disproportionate spending has challenged public health for decades, compounded by government’s continued disinvestments in the science and public health systems we need to build healthy populations.

The test of public health’s potential now is not simply how we respond to COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics. Rather, our test is how we elevate the public’s and government’s support for and investment in the field, elevating public health’s unique capabilities to address the complex, intertwined challenges that COVID-19 has revealed in stark detail, which include what we refer to as our Grand Challenges around how to better succeed and creating healthy populations: 1) growing health inequities with high rates of obesity and chronic disease; 2) the health impacts of climate change; 3) aging populations and longer lives that could be healthy but are not; 4) the inadequacy of food systems; 5) the global mental health crisis; and 6) the likelihood of increased rates of future pandemics. These challenges represent a series of interdependent issues that require team-based approaches to solve.

Opportunities for Mailman, Columbia, and the World

Columbia Mailman is committed to building the science and solutions on these issues, in addition to making progress on longstanding challenges, and leading on re-engineering the entire field of public health. To do this, we need to prepare and enable leaders to think expansively, work across disciplines to achieve more cutting-edge discovery, and harness the rapid changes in science, such as the potential of big data and data science for health, to accelerate solutions and transform health. If we succeed in shifting the field and expanding our impact, we could change the trajectory of health and health resilience on the planet, creating the conditions for all humans to thrive in symphony with our planet’s thriving.

Columbia Mailman is ideally positioned to take on the pressing health needs of current and future generations. To lead the needed transformational change in the public health ecosystem, Columbia Mailman must complete its own transformation into an agile, interdisciplinary school with the capacity to push the field forward on multiple fronts. By 2035, Columbia Mailman must accomplish as great a leap as that of the last 100 years to develop and implement unified, actionable solutions to the biggest public health challenges the world faces. With empowered teams, we are confident we can make this great leap successfully. The purpose of the Grand Challenges RFA is to spur the needed team development and discovery. We anticipate these awards being aligned with the noted 6 Grand Challenges, but are also cognizant that our faculty may identify challenges not noted and we are therefore not limiting the call to these topics.

Rules, Eligibility, and Applying


Full-time faculty holding primary appointments in one of the School's Departments or Centers are eligible. Investigators from CUIMC or Columbia University, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows can be members of the research team, but the principal investigator(s; MPI structure is acceptable) must hold their primary appointment in the Mailman School of Public Health.


Applications will be reviewed and ranked by a committee of senior faculty and administrators across CUIMC. The written opinion of outside experts may be solicited when the committee considers it helpful to do so.

Criteria to be used by the review committee:

  1. The scientific merit of the proposed research.
  2. The public health significance of the proposed research.
  3. Evidence of an interdisciplinary and team-based approach that will be sustained.
  4. Alignment with the Columbia Mailman Centennial Grand Challenges


Up to $200,000 in funding will be awarded to each team to support promising, high-impact research proposals. We anticipate making at least six awards. The money may be used for research expenses, salary, travel, equipment, consultation, or administrative/research assistance. The funds must be expended within 24 months of the award, brief quarterly updates completed, and a formal report must be provided by no later than 30 days after the completion of the work. Awardees will also be expected to take part in a scientific symposium to showcase these awards.

Awards will be announced in April 2022 with awards starting July, 2022.


To apply, please complete this form (download Word document). The deadline for the 2022-23 academic year is 5 p.m. on Friday February 25, 2022 (extended).

Please forward applications and all supporting documentation to:

ckk7 [at] cumc.columbia.edu (Craig Kandell)
Project Coordinator
ckk7 [at] cumc.columbia.edu