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The US government's international development agency is stepping up its focus on science and technology with a key appointment intended to enhance the agency's programmes in the Middle East and bolster the Obama administration's push for science diplomacy.

Alex Dehgan was appointed USAID's science and technology advisor last month (11 March). The agency described him in a statement as "the focal point for implementing the Administrator's vision to restore science and technology to its rightful place within USAID".

An agency spokeswoman said that Dehgan will work closely with USAID's senior counselor and director of innovation, Maura O'Neill, and will help shape development strategies, as well as create "novel science-based initiatives".

Dehgan's appointment is widely seen as strengthening the administration's commitment to science diplomacy — the use of scientific programmes, such as efforts to forge international cooperation among scientists and engineers, to achieve broader political objectives.

Dehgan, a conservation biologist and an attorney in international law, has worked for the US State Department in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. He also has experience working on large-scale conservation projects in the non-governmental sector.

The appointment is "very encouraging", said Caroline Wagner, author of The New Invisible College: Science for Development. "Dehgan has a long background in science diplomacy, he is a bench-trained scientist, and he is young — he has energy and drive."

She said that this appointment adds to a growing list of high-level experts currently promoting US science diplomacy. "There is a lot of interest and experience that's being brought to this issue."

Al Teich, director of science and policy programmes at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said that the appointment of Dehgan — who has worked as an AAAS fellow, helping to set up an electronic library of scientific journals in Iraq — shows that science diplomacy is "an idea whose time has come".

In addition to furthering the administration's commitment to develop science and technology assistance to Islamic countries, Dehgan's background in conservation is seen as strengthening a relatively new USAID's focus on environmental sciences.

Although Dehgan is taking a newly-created position at the aid agency, the USAID spokeswoman said that USAID is simply reviving a dormant area of interest: "USAID previously had a robust science and technology bureau and science advisor from the late 1970s through the early 1990s".

USAID's focus on science and technology, as well as on the Muslim world, is likely to get a boost from the federal budget for 2011. The Obama administration is asking Congress for a US $45 million increase in USAID funding over 2010, with most of the money to go to resources that "meet U.S. foreign policy objectives and support Presidential initiatives".