An official website of the United States government

Science and Technology Seen as Tools for Innovative Development
February 15, 2012

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer

February 13,  2012

Pomegranates at a market
Pomegranates are a high-value crop for Afghan farmers. USAID has helped local farmers in Kandahar province expand their market opportunities and boost exports.

President Obama wants to accelerate progress in international development, announcing a package of initiatives and partnerships February 8 that will apply new creativity and innovation to the challenges of the future: food security, climate change, energy and environmental sustainability.

The administration’s proposals draw new institutions and sectors into development activity in the belief that new entities can bring new solutions to problems facing poor countries. At a White House meeting involving government and private sector leaders, plans were unveiled to draw universities, technology companies, patent regulators and other groups into development endeavors.

“A core part of my global development strategy is harnessing the creativity and innovation of all sectors of our society to make progress that none of us can achieve alone,” said President Obama in the fact sheet on the effort. “The new collaborations we’re launching today will help save lives from hunger and disease, lift people from poverty and reaffirm America’s enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being.”

The initiatives announced February 8 follow on the development policy laid out by the Obama administration in 2010, which called for investments in “game-changing innovation” to push development forward.

Science and technology must be a “core part” of the effort to make progress, according to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah. “Climate change, poverty and food insecurity aren’t going to be solved by traditional approaches,” he said at a January conference on environment and security issues. “The scale of those challenges is so massive, they will require new innovations, driven by the transformational power of science and technology.”

Alex Dehgan, science and technology adviser to USAID’s Shah, says using scientific collaboration to tackle development problems will also help poor countries acquire the skills and know-how to address their next generation of problems. “We can really leverage our domestic knowledge to address problems around the world, but we can also use [science and technology] to work cooperatively and to build capacities of other countries to address these problems together.”

A White House February 8 fact sheet explained the various development initiatives stretching across multiple fields: academia, science, regulation and business:

• USAID will join universities in a new partnership to “focus the next generation of problem solvers on development’s most vexing challenges,” according to the fact sheet.

• The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will run a competition called Patents for Humanity. Participating companies will demonstrate how their patented technology best addresses a global problem. The winners will be rewarded with express treatment of their applications as they are considered by the patent office.

• The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will team up with existing international humanitarian organizations to develop and deploy technologies that can help address global poverty and associated problems. The Berkeley Lab will create the Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies to work with groups such as WaterHealth International and Oxfam America.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture is beginning a partnership with the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) to provide better information to reduce crop losses and improve yields. CABI’s Plantwise program maintains a global knowledge bank on crops, pests and diseases, and it has “plant doctors” working at more than 180 plant clinics that tap this information to improve harvests for developing world farmers.

• The National Institutes of Health is developing a free online database of health and disease information, working with private sector interests and international organizations. By bringing together “disparate databases and research,” the fact sheet says, “new insights for old problems” may emerge to speed identification of new therapies to address neglected tropical diseases that plague the lives of the world’s poorest people.

These initiatives will be making use of a problem-solving strategy that USAID’s Dehgan calls “open innovation,” pulling in experts from many fields “to be as creative as possible and look at all possible solutions of how do we address this problem together.”

USAID and other partners have organized some mass brainstorming sessions under the title of Grand Challenge of Development. The agency brought together a group in 2011 to find ways to better protect the health of women and infants during birth (see the group’s website). Further Grand Challenges are being planned for 2012 to focus on the problems of energy, education and agriculture and groundwater.

“By using open innovation we’re really calling to the entirety of the world to find solutions to problems,” Dehgan said.