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A decision to reorganise the US Agency for International Development (USAID) — and to appoint the former head of a major pharmaceutical company as its new administrator — could boost the role of science and technology in the agency's efforts.

For several years, USAID has been under growing pressure to adopt a more focused and long-term approach to its support of science and technology in developing countries. This, for example, was the main thrust of a draft report prepared last year by a branch of the National Academy of Sciences (see US aid agency 'should pay more attention to science')

The agency now supports a wide spectrum of scientific and technological activities, ranging from the development of science education in South African schools to the substantial support it provides for research into vaccines against HIV/AIDS and malaria, as well as for the systems that supply them and monitor their use.

But many feel that all these activities could benefit from a more coherent and strategic commitment to building science and technology capacity in developing countries, and making this a cornerstone of their efforts to achieve social and economic growth.

An excellent opportunity to do this has arisen with the announcement last week by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that a major reorganisation of the agency's work, intended to increase its effectiveness and bring greater coherence to US aid efforts, is imminent.

Hopefully this will reduce the current fragmentation of US aid efforts; certainly the rapid growth of the foreign assistance budget during the last few years has raised the need for such coordination. And there are further grounds for optimism in the fact that Rice has nominated Randall Tobias, former president of drug company Eli Lilly, as the new head of the agency.

Reasons for optimism

There is therefore much to welcome in Rice's explanation of the decision to integrate the agency's work more closely with that of the State Department. The most obvious manifestation of this integration is the fact that Tobias, in addition to his responsibilities at USAID, will also hold the new position of director of foreign assistance at the State Department.

The reasons for optimism lie partly in the references to the importance of capacity building in developing countries that Rice made in a speech to USAID officials. This reflects an awareness that development work will only succeed if it provides countries with the means and ability to determine their own future. What needs to be more widely recognised is that an indigenous scientific and technical capacity is an essential tool for reaching this goal.

There are also grounds for optimism in Tobias's own background. Although not a scientist by training, he has spent his whole professional career managing science-based enterprises, firstly as a senior manager at the telecommunications company AT&T during the difficult period that followed the break-up of the Bell Telephone System in the 1980s, and subsequently at Eli Lilly, where he was president and chief executive officer from 1993 to 1999.

Both positions will inevitably have impressed on Tobias the need simultaneously to promote fundamental research, to develop the fruits of research in development of new products, and to assure that those products reach the end user. As he said later of his position at Lilly — one of the company's most successful periods: "if you're in the pharmaceutical industry, the only things you have to sell are [your workforce's] intelligence, creativity, motivation and skills of working together".

Grounds for caution

Despite such good omens, however, there are also grounds for caution. One lies in the apparent willingness of the Bush administration — as exemplified by the administration's position on climate change — to bend its definition of sound science to fit its political outlook.

Tobias has come under fire for his part in such activities through his current role as coordinator of all US international HIV/AIDS assistance. In particular, he has been at the forefront of a campaign warning against relying on condoms (and preaching abstinence as an alternative) to prevent infection — a campaign that critics argue is based on a misuse of scientific evidence about condom efficacy.

There is insufficient content to this issue on its own to justify the accusation of Tobias being 'anti-science', as some of the administration's opponents have alleged in criticising his nomination. Certainly his support for research into novel vaccines would not support this charge, which in any case is unlikely given his previous industrial experience.

Nevertheless there is also sufficient substance in the charges to warrant some scepticism about Tobias's own assertion, made in an interview in 2004, that US policy in this field "is a balanced, science-based one that focuses on what works".

The second reason for caution is that closer links with the State Department could undermine USAID's effectiveness, a concern widely held within the agency itself. The worry is that it could be pressed into shifting its focus away from long-term strategies towards shorter-term political goals, particularly those that are determined by the immediate foreign policy concerns of the administration (which at present means Afghanistan and Iraq).

Already, for example, concerns have been expressed about the support provided by USAID to the Palestinian Authority in the run up to the recent election there (adding support to the idea that the reorganisation will further politicise the agency). Ultimately this could lead to a situation in which the only countries receiving US support are those that share the US view of the world, a situation that would be good for US interests but bad for global democracy.

Deflecting criticism

To the relief of many of those attending last week's meeting, Rice told USAID staff that the organisation would remain an independent agency, and not, as some had feared, be folded into the State Department. A move in that direction would have virtually guaranteed that USAID's activities in developing countries be viewed with even more suspicion than they already are.

It could also have meant that the agency's efforts to promote long-term development strategies in the countries it seeks to help would be openly vulnerable to short-term political priorities.

Rice herself also sought to deflect criticism on this point by arguing that a short-term approach to building "well-governed democratic states" — one of the administration's key foreign aid objectives — would inevitably fail. "It isn't the long-term perspective of USAID that needs to change," she is reported to have told one questioner. "If you think that there's a short-term approach at [the State Department], maybe that had better change."

But the concern remains. It is now up to Tobias to demonstrate through his actions — and the USAID programmes he promotes — that the administration means what it says.

One way of doing this would be to implement proposals for a more strategic approach to science and technology within the agency. After all, the vitality not only of the US economy, but of US society as a whole, has long rested on the government's decision to invest in a robust and productive science base. There is no reason why is should not promote a similar agenda within the developing world.

Subverting the US aid agenda to shorter term goals — whether economic or political — might reap immediate rewards, but at a long-term price (as previous US support for Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has shown). Using this agenda as a tool for investing in the long-term vitality of the societies that the United States is seeking to help — which would include an explicit commitment to building their science and technology capacities — would be widely welcomed by the rest of the international aid community.