February 3, 2017

Guest Commentary: The Rise of Science, Technology, and Innovation at USAID

By Julie Howard, Senior Adviser, Michigan State University and Center for Strategic and International Studies

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Role of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships in the Future of the U.S. Agency for International Development, concludes that increasing USAID’s focus on applying science, technology and innovation to meet tough challenges is critical to improving development outcomes around the world.  Through promising institutional innovations like Grand Challenges, Development Innovation Ventures, and the Global Development Lab, USAID is evolving from its traditional role of designing, implementing, and wholly funding specific projects in individual countries to become a leading national and global broker of organizations and resources. Through these powerful new partnerships, USAID is helping to steer the application of the world’s best science, technology, and innovations to solve specific, high-priority health, agricultural, and environmental challenges affecting developing countries.

USAID’s new focus on crafting problem-focused alliances has made it easier for external organizations—private sector companies, foundations, universities, and other donor agencies—to bring forward new ideas and financial resources to solve tough problems varying  from better protective gear for medical personnel assisting Ebola victims to innovations that help farmers produce higher quality food with less water.  These partnerships are expected to increase the scope and cost-effectiveness of agency efforts, enabling USAID to reach millions more people.

The report recommends institutionalizing these important innovations within the agency’s bureaus and field missions and deepening USAID’s work with other USG science agencies, US universities, and the private sector—institutions which bring outstanding scientific, technological, and innovation assets to development challenges. The report also recommends that USAID’s strong field presence and in-country relationships should be further tapped to enable the agency to become a powerful and effective conduit for developing countries to access “whole-of-U.S.” expertise related to science, technology, and innovation in the public and private sectors. 

In addition, the report says that USAID should elevate scaling of successful projects as a core agency priority to extend the impact and sustainability of science and technology-based interventions.  Emerging research on scaling suggests that the agency will need more flexible, adaptive project management and to begin planning for scaling impact and partnerships from project inception. The report also notes that because scaling can often involve commercialization of publicly funded efforts, private sector advisers and partners will have much to offer.

Finally, the report urges USAID to invest more in strengthening the scientific capacity of developing country partners, in training more women scientists and innovators, and in improving women’s access to education, economic opportunities and technology.  USAID has underinvested in strengthening the scientific research capacity, regulatory oversight, and training of developing country partners, the report finds.  Greater investments in training—including training individuals in higher education and professional schools, and support for science institutions and regulatory bodies—are needed to empower developing countries to produce quality scientific research and address their own health and development needs.  Expanding the number of women scientists and innovators in developing countries, and increasing the engagement of women in their countries’ economies more generally, is critical to accelerating the development and adoption of technology and innovations that will lead to healthier families and better living conditions.

The report can be downloaded for free at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24617/


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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