In January, on the same day I took my oath of office to be Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I met with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Together we discussed President Obama’s strong support of science, technology, and innovation as an indispensible component of U.S. development policy as we seek to support developing communities worldwide.
Last week marked a major milestone in the Administration’s efforts to advance this goal. Together with the President’s science and technology advisor Dr. John P. Holdren and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, USAID co-hosted a conference entitled Transforming Development through Science, Technology, and Innovation. We welcomed more than sixty of the top thought leaders in science and development, from within and outside the Federal government, to help us identify a set of “grand challenges” and explore how science and technology can be used to help solve them. These challenges include such acute development needs as installing piped drinking water for households, deploying high-quality irrigation systems with locally-accessible replacement parts, and using the latest mobile technologies for banking, sharing vital health data, paying salaries, and checking commodity prices.
At the conference’s closing event, Secretary Clinton made note of the many development-related “quantum leaps” that science has already enabled, such as the smallpox vaccine that within just a few years turned the tide in global health, mobile banking programs that have helped local economies in Kenya and the Philippines, and updated “green revolution” farming techniques that have boosted productivity in marginal environments. Science, technology, and innovation, she said, can be great equalizers that increase opportunity and prosperity for all.
Last Friday, after the conference had concluded, I again met with PCAST to discuss our findings and how USAID can continue to deliver the transformational promise that science and technology hold for poor communities around the world. We also talked about how these advancements will allow specific key development priorities, such as Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative, to become more scalable and sustainable.
New technologies alone won’t be a silver bullet for development; we also need to ensure that our implementation, distribution, and communication networks with partner countries are strategically coordinated at all levels. But science, technology, and innovation can help us leapfrog development problems that can otherwise take generations to tackle. They can bridge the divide between the public and private sectors and help us bypass obstacles previously considered insurmountable. And they can help USAID change the way we do business with the more than 80 nations in which we work.
The President’s leadership on this issue has been remarkable and I am tremendously optimistic about our opportunity to increase the impact of USAID’s work with developing communities worldwide in the coming years.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, M.D. is Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development