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  • US aid agency 'should pay more attention to science'

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[WASHINGTON DC] The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the body that distributes US aid money to developing countries, is being urged by a high-level independent panel to give a greater strategic role to science in all of its activities.

To help achieve this, the agency is being recommended to appoint a chief scientific advisor, who would be responsible for ensuring that appropriate attention is given to science and technology (S&T) across its individual programmes, and tap into external scientific advice on key policy issues.

Another suggestion is that USAID, which is part of the US State Department and focuses much of its current aid efforts on providing technical assistance, should introduce more programmes to boost the science and technology capacity of developing countries.

The panel is also urging the United States to set up a mechanism "to look broadly at opportunities for S&T to respond to development needs, and to effectively link science and technology with US security and foreign policy interests".

The recommendations are made in the interim report of a committee set up by the National Research Council — the executive branch of the National Academy of Sciences — to look into the role of science and technology within the US aid agency.

The inquiry, which is being sponsored by USAID itself, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, follows a similar investigation into the role of science within the State Department.

The report of that committee, which was published in 1999, led among other developments to the creation of a chief scientist's position within the department.

The new report, whose final version is due to be published in October of this year, is widely expected to lead to comparable changes inside USAID.

At present, although the agency is responsible for science and technology projects costing more than US$200 million a year, these are scattered among departments ranging from education to agriculture.

By introducing a more strategic approach to the use of science in its programmes and by boosting its support for science capacity building within developing countries, the agency would be aligning itself with changes that have already been taking place elsewhere.

Britain's Department for International Development, for example, has recently appointed a chief scientific advisor, who has been given the task of introducing such changes into the British government's aid effort (see UK to appoint 'chief development scientist').

Similar changes are taking place in the World Bank (see World Bank puts science back on the agenda).

The United States would also be positioning itself better to help implement any recommendations for supporting science and technology capacity building in the developing world — particularly in Africa — that emerge from the G8 summit meeting of world's most industrialised countries, which takes place in the United Kingdom in July.

In its interim report to USAID administrator Andrew Natsios, the National Research Council committee says that the agency should have the capability to assess the science and technology capacity of developing countries, "and design programs that contribute to the development and maintenance of this capacity".

The panel, known as the Committee on Science and Technology to Support Foreign Assistance, also says that the agency should itself have the S&T capabilities to evaluate available technologies, and should encourage the development of emerging technologies that are relevant to USAID's interests.

Among its various proposals, the committee suggests creating a high-level co-ordinating mechanism, "probably involving the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy", to assess how S&T can meet development needs in ways that are compatible with US security and foreign policy interests.

It also recommends creating the post of science adviser to the USAID — although the suggestion that this might be a deputy to the State Department's science advisor is said not to have gone down well within the aid agency.

One of the committee's co-chairs is Tom Pickering, a top State Department science official during the Carter administration, who is currently senior vice-president for international assistance at the Boeing Corporation.

The other is Kenneth Shine, a former president of the Institute of Medicine, and currently vice-chancellor of the Office of Health Affairs at the University of Texas System.

Their committee, which is currently engaged in a series of international visits, says in its interim report that it shares Natsios' frustration that heavy 'earmarking' by Congress limits the flexibility of USAID managers to pursue new and innovative projects that build on science and technology.

The committee also criticises a short-term focus within many of the agency's programmes, the result of which, it says, has been to discourage sustained commitment focussed on specific development problems.

"Continued long-term support for the development of human capacity is absolutely essential," the report says. "The agency's S&T agenda should focus on efforts to bolster the capacity of the public and private sectors in developing countries to absorb and utilise S&T, a goal that requires support over a number of years."

The results of further investigations by the committee and its staff, as well as feedback being received on its interim report, will be incorporated into the final report, which is currently due to be published in October.

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