Spotlight on... Sam Balch

Sam Balch
Sam Balch
This week we meet Sam Balch, the new Director of UCL’s Grand Challenges programme. Sam chats to us about the launch of five new Grand Challenge themes, returning to UCL as an alumnus, and rediscovering the Star Wars saga with his daughters.

What is your role and what does it involve?  

I’m the new Director of UCL’s Grand Challenges programme, which is a core part of UCL’s Strategic Plan. I’m responsible for delivering the new programme, which aims to maximise the positive impact of UCL’s world-class research, education and innovation on the biggest issues facing society.  

My team will be working closely with strategic academic leadership on five new themes - mental health and wellbeing; climate crisis; data empowered societies; inequality; and intercultural communications. So far, we have launched mental health and wellbeing and the climate crisis themes. The next theme - data empowered societies - will launch in the coming academic year.   

We will also be working to enhance UCL’s educational offer and institutional operations around the Grand Challenge themes so we continue to lead by example. Watch this space for exciting developments...!  

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role? 

I’ve only been at UCL for six weeks. However, I’m a UCL alumnus so still remember my way around (mostly). As a former student, I strongly believe in the power of UCL to change things for the better by working in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way; and equipping future leaders with the skills to accelerate the pace and scale of change.   

Prior to joining the Grand Challenges team, I worked in a range of roles. I was previously an Executive Director at Business in the Community, leading their campaigns and content function, and prior to this, worked as a Senior Civil Servant on various net zero and decarbonisation policies in central Government.  

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of? 

I’ve been lucky enough to work on lots of high-profile schemes and initiatives, and singling out a favourite is hard. If pushed, I’d probably say: a) establishing the £3.8bn Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund at the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; and b) helping increase ethnic minority representation in the senior Civil Service, as Departmental champion for the Faith and Minority Ethnic network.  

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list 

I have three big things on my to-do list in the coming weeks:  

    Preparing for the Annual UCL Lancet Lecture 2024. We will be hosting Professor Linda Villarosa who will talk about her work on the societal forces that cause black people to live sicker and die quicker compared to their white counterparts. If you are interested in attending, please do sign up here.   

    data-empowered societies. We are hosting a workshop on 7 May for UCL staff working on (or with) data to help shape the focus and direction of the theme. It will also be a chance to hear about being a Pro-Vice Provost for the new theme. If you are interested in attending, please sign up here.   

    climate crisis. We are hosting an innovation workshop for UCL staff on the 22 May for UCL to exchange ideas, and shape the new Grand Challenge. If you are interested in attending, please sign up here.  

  • Understanding what worked about the existing Grand Challenge programme, and where there is opportunity for improvement. The existing programme has been running for nearly 15 years. It has grown from a fledgling initiative to support nearly 450 projects, involving over 850 researchers, and 170 institutes, centres, and departments. Equally, there are lots of Grand Challenge-style initiatives at other universities now and we want to keep leading the sector about how you "do" this type of challenge-based work effectively. I’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts on this.  

  • If you want to learn more about UCL Grand Challenges events, sign up for one of our upcoming events here. 

    What is your favourite album, film and novel? 

    I don’t really do favourites, so have subverted the question:  

    Album: I don’t really listen to music as albums any longer. Whilst I type this, I’m currently listening to ’Best of High Contrast’ on Spotify.  

    Film: I’m currently working my way through the Star Wars saga with my two daughters - Isobel and Indira. Seeing their excitement has made me fall in love with it again! 

    Book: I’ve recently finished reading Dune by Frank Herbert, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’m now onto Blink by Malcolm Gladwell which is a page turner..  

    What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)? 

    My daughters don’t allow me to tell jokes. I make them laugh too much... 

    Who would be your dream dinner guests? 

    I worked for a guy called Pete Betts who sadly passed away recently. He was instrumental in getting the Paris Agreement over the line. He had a wicked sense of humour, although not very PC! I would very much like to talk to him again. I also think Nelson Mandela and Greta Thunberg would be fascinating dinner party guests. I can already imagine some very entertaining moments... 

    What advice would you give your younger self? 

    Trying to change things for the better when working on "wicked problems" is really hard, and you will face plenty of setbacks! Don’t get disheartened. I’ve learnt that really knowing yourself and building your personal resilience is essential. I’ve also found change involves a real commitment to taking risks; thinking creatively with others; building strong relationships; and demonstrating a real passion for what you are doing. Finally, it also involves a healthy dose of luck, which few people mention!  

    What would it surprise people to know about you? 

    I have mastered reversing a post van down a single-track road at speed whilst on delivery.  

    What is your favourite place?   

    Dyfi Bike Park, near Machynlleth, in Wales; and Harlesden in North West London where I live.  
  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000