The United States Agency for International Development once had a robust record on science and technology, including work that helped lead to new crop strands and oral rehydration solutions for use in parts of the world where some of the biggest development challenges are drought and deadly diarrhea.
That record all but disappeared over the last 15 years.
"The funding dried up, the institutional structures went away, the scientists left the agency,” said Raj Shah, who became USAID’s administrator a year and a half ago. “By the time I got there, there were only two scientific fellows at the agency, and there was a complete lack of centralized organization and funding for science and technology.”
There hadn’t even been a dedicated, full-time science adviser on staff in two decades.
That absence was remarkable, in Shah’s eyes, because he believes science, technology and innovation ought to be at the core of what USAID does. At an agency whose work spans everything from health education to disaster recovery to elections expertise, Shah has tried to fundamentally redefine development as the global disparity in access to science and technology.
More than 2 billion people around the world, he says, simply lack access to the basic scientific and technological advances the developed world has taken for granted over the past two centuries. And that disparity breeds unnecessary childhood mortality, extreme poverty and the inability to harness scarce resources or cope with extreme climate conditions.
“If you believe in that premise,” Shah said, “then the implication in the 21st century of what a development enterprise should be is not simply an institution that provides resources to partner governments to deliver basic services but rather an institution that uses its resources strategically to build the scientific, technical and innovation-related partnerships to allow those partner countries to fundamentally solve problems related to climate vulnerability, to food insecurity and premature child death.”
That idea — that science and technology aren’t simply overlooked elements of development but the whole key to it — sounds radical. But the resources for implementing it have actually long been at hand.
The National Science Foundation funds hundreds of millions of dollars in work by U.S. scientists, including research that already takes place in every country where USAID operates. The NSF can’t fund foreign researchers, but USAID — which until now hasn’t devoted much of its budget to the idea — can.
Why, then, don’t the two work together?
Shah and NSF director Subra Suresh met Thursday in a 12th-floor boardroom of the NSF offices before dozens of colleagues from both agencies and White House science advisor John Holdren to launch for the first time just such a formal partnership. Based on the success of six USAID-NSF pilot projects in Africa and Bangladesh, Shah and Suresh unveiled the PEER (Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research) program.
NSF will fund the work of U.S. scientists abroad conducting research crucial to development goals around water, renewable energy, food security, climate change and disaster mitigation, and USAID will fund the local scientists to work with them. Both agencies hope that such international collaboration will lead to technical solutions to problems like famine but also develop the in-country expertise and infrastructure necessary to close that science and technology disparity.
“Science,” Suresh told the audience, “is increasingly multidisciplinary, multinational, multi-institutional, multicultural, multi-scale, and — as today’s event illustrated — increasingly multiagency-funded.”
Both Shah and Suresh stressed afterward that that multiagency funding will not come from a new pot of money. Both agencies will redirect existing funds to support the program, and they hope the collaboration will make that money go that much farther.
USAID, for example, is bracing for the coming crisis of a famine in the horn of Africa. To genuinely end nonconflict-related famine, Shah said, the region needs new climate-resistant crops. The NSF, meanwhile, has already been funding extensive crop research that could facilitate precisely that development goal.
“Now we have this partnership where a [USAID] mission in Tanzania, where they’re trying to get a longer-lasting insecticide-treated bed net, can now have access to the huge portfolio of scientific partners to help us create this new tool,” Shah said. “That wasn’t possible before.”