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Leading US science policy experts are urging the United States to return science and technology to the heart of its overseas aid programmes.

The proposals are made in a report published today (16 February) by a committee of the National Research Council, the branch of the US National Academies of Science that carries out independent studies of government agencies.

In particular, the group wants the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to reverse steep declines in the number of scientists and engineers it employs, and in its support for students from developing countries studying technical subjects at US universities.

Members of the group accept that given the current political and economic demands on USAID, their proposals could take years to be adopted, even though other countries such as the United Kingdom are pursuing them (see 'Rockefeller boss to put science into UK development aid').

The committee, chaired by Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, and Kenneth Shine, vice-chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, makes three broad recommendations.

First, that USAID should reverse the decline in its support for building science and technology capacity in developing countries — including more support for graduate education and broadband Internet access.

Second, they say the agency should recruit senior officials with strong scientific and management credentials.

Third, the committee urges USAID to coordinate the science and technology-related activities that other US government departments and agencies undertake in developing countries.

The committee also says USAID needs a chief scientific advisor, and should support the creation of a Non-governmental Innovation Center, staffed primarily by scientists and engineers applying innovative technologies to specific development problems.

John Daly, a former USAID science official who is now an advisor to the World Bank, describes the recommendations as "well considered, relevant and reasonable".

But he adds that "unfortunately, the recommendations seem likely to fall on deaf ears" since the Bush administration "is at war with the domestic and international scientific community over a variety of environmental, bioethics and science education issues".

Daly also points out that current US budget deficits will make it difficult to finance new initiatives. This, plus other pressures on USAID — including the fact that half of its overseas aid staff now qualify for retirement — "is not a situation in which even good advice by serious people is likely to be used well," he says.

But Glenn Schweitzer, the director of the study, says that because USAID has a new administrator and will be working more closely with the US State Department, there will be more opportunities for new initiatives (see 'Window of opportunity for USAID').

He says that while members of the panel accept that persuading the Bush administration to follow the recommendations will be difficult, he is optimistic the recommendations will eventually be implemented.

"They will be relevant today, and next year, and for many years to come," he says. "The importance of the topic cannot be ignored."

Read the report online at the National Academy Press