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The US development agency looks set to build on its 'development science' efforts during Barack Obama's second term, writes David Dickson.

Four years ago, the election of Barack Obama as US president raised hopes of a significant shift in American attitudes towards supporting science and technology (S&T) as key factors in promoting international development.

It followed eight years of a Republican administration that had shown little interest in allowing the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to follow other aid agencies in moving in this direction.

Obama's supporters have not been disappointed. During his first term, a number of initiatives — such as the creation of an S&T office within USAID and the appointment of 'science ambassadors' — have placed S&T squarely on the US aid agenda, where it had been up to the early 1980s, and to a lesser extent through to the mid-1990s.

It was therefore appropriate that, only days after Obama's re-election two weeks ago, USAID announced one of its most ambitious projects to date: a five-year, US$130 million network of 'development laboratories' in US and developing country universities.

But if the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), as it is called, is to be a success, the US Congress — in which Republicans remain a major force — must follow through with the full five-year funding (although the universities involved must also raise at least a further 60 per cent of the federal funding from foundations and other private sources).

The network must also come up with projects that genuinely help to solve the problems facing the developing world, rather than quick technical fixes conceived in remote laboratories with little awareness of how they can be implemented on a wide scale.

Enthusiasm for 'development science'

US researchers are certainly enthusiastic about the growing field of 'development science'. When, at the beginning of this year, USAID put out a call for proposals for HESN, it received more than 500 from universities in the United States and the developing world.

From these, six US universities, each working with partners in the developing world, have been selected for multi-year funding. In addition, Makerere University in Uganda will lead the ResilientAfrica lab, an international partnership that will apply S&T to protecting communities from natural and political stresses.

The HESN is a welcome opportunity for the universities involved to place science for development squarely on the US academic map. So too is the agreement to elevate the status of the S&T office within USAID.

Both moves reflect a continued commitment to put S&T at the heart of US development efforts. And it is significant that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, chose to personally launch the HESN, despite a heavy post-election schedule.

The aim, according to USAID's S&T advisor, Alex Dehgan, is to enhance the agency's ability to use new tools and approaches to solving development problems — and to scale them up by promoting entrepreneurship.

Inclusive partnerships needed

So far, so good. But there are also reasons to be cautious.

Spread over five years, the funds pale into insignificance compared with the US$40 billion a year that US universities and colleges receive in federal support (or indeed the government's annual expenditure on military research and development, which is about twice this amount).

With the US economy still facing deep problems and powerful Republican opposition to any spending increases, particularly in foreign aid not related to security and defence, there is little prospect of much more funding for development science within the four-year life of the new administration. And the money promised for this project could even be cut.

There is also the question of getting any new technology developed in the HESN to where it is needed the project does include research into the innovation systems needed to ensure that this happens.

In media interviews, Dehgan has compared the initiative to the highly effective Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which focuses academic brains on the development of technologies for the military.

But there is an important difference: DARPA has long had the Pentagon to put its ideas into practice. Creating demand for new products in developing countries is a very different challenge.

The task of promoting socially inclusive innovation requires active participation by developing countries themselves. Building their capacity to do so must remain a high priority.

In this context, US researchers must understand the interests of developing countries and be prepared to collaborate with their counterparts abroad as true partners, avoiding any temptation to put their own career advancement ahead of what will often be an unequal relationship in terms of research experience.

USAID's new network is to be welcomed. Its impact on reducing global poverty may be relatively small compared with the size of the problem. But by focusing US researchers on this goal, and helping researchers in the developing world to do so too, it is certainly a further step by the Obama administration in the right direction.

David Dickson

David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net 2001–2011.