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  • New USAID grants to boost development science

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has thrown its support behind efforts by US universities and colleges to get students and researchers more deeply involved in designing practical technical solutions to the problems faced by developing countries.

Announcing the details of a new funding initiative in Washington, United States, earlier this month (9 February), USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said it was intended to pioneer "a new relationship between USAID and universities".

Two levels of award are being offered, under what is known as the Higher Education Solutions Network, which is open to applications until 22 March 2012.

Individual institutions can receive grants of up to US$2 million a year over five years. Academic consortia of between three and four academic centres  potentially including developing country partners can apply for grants of US$5 million a year over the same period.

In both cases, the aim is to encourage what the agency describes as "multidisciplinary, evidence-based approaches to development" through innovative problem-solving.

The new initiative follows a decision by USAID, formalised in September 2010 by US president Barack Obama, to shift the agency's focus away from supporting food and medical relief efforts towards technological developments that could result in significant long-term change in developing countries.

USAID's science and technology adviser, Alex Dehgan, said the new initiative will help "bring together all components of the campus from engineering to anthropology, from global health to entrepreneurship and from agriculture to environment, to focus on the problems that impede humanity's advancement".

Andrea Johnson of the US-based Carnegie Corporation of New York, which coordinates a major scheme supporting research in African universities, said: "To the extent that US universities develop mutually-beneficial partnerships with universities in developing countries to solve development challenges, this programme could make a significant, lasting contribution".

The initiative was also welcomed by John Daly, a former top USAID official, who pointed out that the agency enjoyed close links with US universities in the past but that these have been downgraded in recent years.

But Daly warned that any future plans to expand the grant programme would require Congressional support, which is far from guaranteed.

"The Republican House, where all money bills originate, has been negative about foreign aid and wants deep budget cuts everywhere," Daly told SciDev.Net. "On the other hand, every member of the House and Senate has university presidents who can lobby for programmes that benefit their institutions."