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Moves by the the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to put science, technology and innovation firmly at the centre of its aid efforts have been enthusiastically endorsed by a rousing speech from secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in which she described herself as "a friend of science".
"Innovation, science [and] technology must again become fundamental components of how we conduct development work," Clinton told a high-level meeting of international development and science experts in Washington DC this week (14 July).
The meeting, entitled ‘Transforming Development through Science Technology and Innovation’ (STI), was originally billed as a consultation to help map out a "bold new" science strategy for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
But observers said it went beyond that, putting science and innovation firmly at the heart of USAID’s work and the administration’s development policy.
The meeting follows the recent appointment of a science and technology adviser and repeated calls for USAID to consider more focused approach to its support of science and technology in developing countries.
In an unprecedented endorsement of STI in development, Clinton said: "While talent may be distributed universally, opportunity is not. And the reality of the world we live in today is that technology and innovation are the great equalisers and can be used to create opportunity where there is very little of that commodity."
She added: "Innovation and technology can do for human development today what the Green Revolution did for agriculture and we can generate significant yields from very modest inputs."
Clinton also emphasised the need to collaborate with the private sector, non-governmental organisations and, particularly, local groups. "Although we won’t have all the answers, we need to act on the best answers we can come up with. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We also need to nurture organic and locally produced solutions."
More specifically, Clinton said: "We’re exploring new mechanisms for promoting innovation such as prizes and competitions that encourage more people to put their own intellectual capital to work. And we’re strengthening our bilateral partnerships through science diplomacy."
Conference co-chair Alex Dehgan — science and technology advisor to USAID administrator Rajiv Shah — told SciDev.Net that the Obama administration was "looking to address development challenges in completely new ways".
"This includes encouraging and accessing indigenous innovation, using open innovation to bring new solvers and new solutions to old challenges, encourage experimentation and risk-taking to provide revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances towards meeting the millennium development goals."
Shah said this would also include supporting social entrepreneurship and "new tools to connect people with knowledge", and supporting higher education training in developing countries to give them the power to solve their own problems.
During the conference Shah stressed the need to move advancements quickly "out of the lab and on the ground", and asked the group to think of ways of partnering with private industry for sustainable, scalable development.
Clinton’s enthusiastic speech surpassed the expectations of many of the conference participants.
Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the meeting represented "an intensification in the way that science and technology is embedded across the whole of diplomacy, not just science and technology issues".
"What this is telling us is the prominent role that science and technology is now playing in the administration and the entire development community in the US government," Turekian told SciDev.Net. "It is a recognition that science and technology are inherently linked to almost every aspect of development."
The closed meeting was organised in order to identify and set the research priorities in sectors such as biodiversity, climate change and water; health and nutrition; agriculture and hunger; energy access, infrastructure and renewable energy; and fragile states, conflicts and disasters.
John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s advisor on science and technology, told the meeting that Obama would be looking for ways to take concrete actions on the conference recommendations.
But the window of opportunity may be limited. Clinton expressed the hope that there would be "semi-regular, once-a-year-or-so" meetings of the same kind. One reason, she said, was that "it’s going to be, unfortunately, a short period of time where we’re going to be judged on whether or not this effort is producing results".