Sunday, September 18, 2011

Support for a Letter to the Editor in Science magazine

R. Shah's powerful editorial “Breakthroughs for development” (22 July, p. 385) underscores the proud history of America's scientific and engineering contributions to development around the world. Many were privately funded and led; many were stimulated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Yet USAID has drifted from its past strengths. Shah bluntly states that “budget cuts and shifting mandates pulled the agency's focus away from emphasizing science and technology.” He implicitly refers to blizzards of congressional earmarks and to USAID's deliberate and consistent de-emphasis on science over the past 30 years.

Observers have repeatedly criticized these trends and recommended exactly what Shah now sees as a priority. For example, 20 years ago, in 1992, the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government argued for a new strategy for USAID and advocated “critical roles for science and technology” (1). Just 5 years ago, in 2007, the Bipartisan Congressional-Presidential HELP Commission called for a new unit in USAID, similar to the creative projects of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, that would invest $50 million per year of “patient capital”—i.e., federal government funding for innovative long-range research (dubbed “patient” because it may not yield immediate results) (2). The reports sat on shelves. No administration took the initiative. Little changed, and the defects Shah cites became worse.

One objection to vigorous U.S. science and technology cooperation is that developing countries such as China and India become competitors as they flourish with economic growth powered by science. However, such countries also become larger markets for U.S. exports and more capable partners in global goals, such as protecting public health.
As the Congress weighs paths to prudent austerity in the overall federal budget, the scientific, medical, and engineering foundations of programs in foreign assistance are as important as such foundations are in defense. Let us move USAID out of its late-20th-century ruts and into the 21st century's frontiers. Shah deserves our help.

  1. Rodney W. Nichols
President and CEO Emeritus, New York Academy of Sciences, New York, NY 10007, USA.
  1. E-mail:

I have copied the letter in its entirety because it merits the attention of all the readers of this blog. Here is the link to the original in Science magazine.
Rajiv Shah is the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. His administration has been marked by a serious effort to return science and technology to an important place in the USAID programs. Rod Nichols is not only the former president of the New York Academy of Sciences but someone who has been an advocate of science and technology in U.S. foreign assistance policy. He knows of which he speaks.
Nichols might also have mentioned The Fundamental Role of Science and Technology in International Development: An Imperative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, published in 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences. (I was one of the reviewers for that book.)
I served in the science and technology portions of USAID for many years, including as the Deputy Director of the USAID Office of Science and Technology, as special assistant to the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Science and Technology, and directing the USAID Office of Research. 
The modest portion of the USAID program devoted to science and technology was important for developing countries, yielding great benefits linked to the Green Revolution, the eradication of Smallpox, and the development of low cost public health interventions that saved millions of lives. Yet it was frequently under fire, often from USAID staff who had little background nor understanding of science and technology, and who were fighting for resources for their own meritorious programs.
For those who agree with Shah, Nichols and me that science and technology cooperation should be an important part of U.S. foreign aid, now is indeed the time to support Shah in his effort to make it so!


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