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The next head of the US development agency USAID may bring a stronger science and technology flavour to developing country assistance because of his background in agriculture, say commentators.

Rajiv Shah, 36, is President Barack Obama's nominee for the post of administrator, an appointment that may be confirmed by the Senate as early as next week.

Shah is currently chief scientist at the US Department for Agriculture (USDA), with responsibility for the Agricultural Research Service, and leads the USDA's role in the Global Food Security Initiative. He is also the USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Although he has been at USDA less than a year, Shah presided over the launch of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which aims to tackle problems of sustainable food production, human nutrition, bioenergy and climate change.

Before joining USDA, Shah held several positions at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation including that of director of agricultural development.

Richard Bissell — executive director for policy and global affairs at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and former head of science and technology at USAID — welcomed the nomination, particularly as USAID has been without a head for almost a year. He said the appointment comes at a time of growing USDA interest in investing in international agriculture.

"There could be a very positive team effort to invest in agricultural science and technology, particularly in Africa," Bissell said.

The NAS has been pressing USAID to strengthen science and technology for development in recent years.

"We feel there has been partial implementation but there is still much more to do to give science and technology the kind of attention it deserves in USAID," said Bissell. In President Obama's declared priorities of food security, energy security and environment, "there is a lot of strengthening to be done", he added.

Andrew Bennett, a board member of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, said Shah's appointment means that agriculture "will continue to be a key element in USAID programmes and support".

US agricultural aid has previously been based on short-term solutions, particularly shipping commodities, but this could now change, Bennett said. Appointing someone "with knowledge based on science rather than food aid can only be a good thing".

But Philip Bereano, professor of technology and public policy at the University of Washington in Seattle, described the nomination as "troubling", saying Shah had "savvy and appeal" but not "substantive competence".