USAID steps up its science efforts

USAID gives more power to science, in response to Obama's call Copyright: Flickr/The Official White House Photostream

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The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has elevated science’s level within the organisation, in a bid to push science and technology (S&T) to the forefront of US government development policy.

Creating a direct link between USAID’s S&T office and its administrator will help to prioritise S&T within the agency, USAID announced last week.

"This is the continued commitment by USAID to President Obama’s call to restore science to its rightful place, and to elevate the role of USAID as a technical agency," Alex Dehgan, S&T advisor to USAID’s administrator, tells SciDev.Net.

"We want to push the boundaries of development using S&T and move from mere incremental change to completely changing the way we do things," he says. "We see it as a really big opportunity to put S&T back at the heart of USAID."

With direct access to the administrator, the S&T office will no longer have to work through the agency’s hierarchy to push technical issues, explains Dehgan.

USAID also announced last week that it is setting up a Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), comprising seven leading American and foreign universities and "designed to develop innovative solutions to global development challenges".

The universities, along with 98 worldwide partners, were chosen from about 500 applications submitted from more than 33 countries, for their ability to address one or more of three areas — data access, technology evaluation and innovation incubation — which USAID says are key determinants of successful development.

Each university will set up "development labs" to "solve key problems in areas such as global health, food security and chronic conflict". For example, Makerere University in Uganda — the only university of the seven outside the United States — will lead efforts on improving the resilience of African communities against natural and political stresses.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will begin publishing "consumer reports" to allow policymakers and donors to assess the most effective technology for their needs.

Initial funding of US$26 million could add up to US$130 million over five years, if bipartisan support for the initiative in the US Congress continues, and extra funding will be provided by the lead universities and partners.

HESN adds to a growing number of USAID projects that are building the agency’s scientific capacity, says Thomas Kalil, of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

He notes also that there are now 54 fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at the agency — up from just five in 2007.

But outside government circles there is some scepticism.

G. Pascal Zachary, a member of the Science and Policy Outcomes Consortium at Arizona State University, and a technology and development specialist, say USAID policies are "behind the times", and questions the agency’s record in science for development.

"With the United States having a hard time managing its own education and infrastructure problems, you wonder what useful expertise it can supply to the rest of the world when it can’t satisfy its own needs," he tells SciDev.Net.