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USAID, Scientists Join in Search for Global Development Answers
July 8, 2011

July 7, 2011

Charlene Porter

Staff Writer, Department of State

Washington — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are undertaking a new venture to build partnerships with developing world institutions at the same time they pursue their respective missions to provide foreign assistance and to support science and research in the United States. Top agency leaders who announced this collaboration July 7 have hopes that the partnership may lead to solutions to development challenges that seem hugely daunting today.

“It’s a win-win partnership in more ways than one,” said White House science adviser John Holdren at a July 7 press briefing about the new partnership, known as Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER). “The U.S. scientific community benefits from more robust international partnerships and from an increased awareness of how research can be used to address global development challenges. Our foreign partners benefit from the expertise and enthusiasm of the scientific community.”

The director of the NSF, Subra Suresh, said partnership is increasingly important when some of the world’s worst problems transcend geographic borders. “We know that many of today’s most pressing research challenges are global in scale, including decreasing clean water resources; global weather disruption; geohazards, such as earthquakes and tsunamis; and food security,” Suresh said. “These complex problems cannot be addressed effectively without concerted international effort.”

These collaborations will help nurture scientific talent in other countries, build scientific infrastructure where it is weak, and instill the values of collaboration and competition that allow scientific activity to transcend geographic and political boundaries, Suresh said.

The announcement of this global partnership was made in a room filled with high-power talent from leading scientific and technological institutions and agencies. USAID Director Rajiv Shah told audience members that their involvement in his agency’s work has the capability to “transform the broader field of global development” because of the scientists’ talent and ability “to think about solutions for problems that other people might find fundamentally intractable.”

Rather than defining development as a transfer of resources from a wealthy country to a poor one, Shah urged his audience to think of development as a process by which scientific and technical partnerships are formed to help countries build their own capacities to solve the environmental, economic or health problems that plague their citizens.

The history of global development endeavors is also marked by projects that failed to give full consideration to the context, the capabilities, the skill level, and the long-term resources of a target population, he said. As an example, Shah described the invention of oral rehydration salts, which restore lost body fluids to prevent infant and toddler deaths due to diarrheal diseases. USAID didn’t choose a solution that would be used in a developed country — a trip to a clinic, an examination, a diagnosis, a prescription — but rather, invented simple salts that a mother might administer to a child.

“By inventing oral rehydration, this agency and its partners not only helped change the mindset of what was possible, but it put the power to save those kids’ lives in the hands of their mothers instead of doctors,” Shah said. “They responded as you’d expect. They did so by the millions, and saved children’s lives in one of the great success stories of global development.”

That story illustrates that advanced technologies or scientific advances aren’t always the best answers, Shah said. “The big breakthroughs that we’re hoping will result from this PEER program are really designed to take problems that look like they couldn’t be solved and give people the power, the tools and capacity to solve those problems themselves.”

This program is being built on the foundation of six pilot projects conducted by USAID and NSF in Africa and South Asia. The projects placed American researchers on teams with local people, jointly analyzing specific environmental and natural resource problems and working toward long-term solutions.

Using science, technology and innovation as principle tools in the pursuit of economic development has been a hallmark of Shah’s leadership of USAID, and a policy priority of the Obama administration.

More information on USAID’s use of science, technology and innovation for development is available on the USAID website.

More information on the Obama administration’s commitment to international science collaboration is available on the White House website.