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Summer 2006 Vol. 6 No. 2

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Nigerian children receive rations from a USAID-funded nutrition program, photo by C. Hahn/World Vision, image courtesy U.S. Agency for International Development Moving Science and Technology Forward at USAID

The last four decades have seen a 50 percent decrease in child mortality worldwide -- a drop that can be credited in part to the efforts of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Research funded by the agency, for example, determined that 2 cents worth of vitamin A given to a child every six months could reduce the severity of diarrhea and malaria and ultimately cut child mortality by 34 percent. USAID also helped translate those findings into practice, working with more than 50 countries to promote the use of vitamin A supplementation and fortified foods.

The agency's success with vitamin A illustrates how scientific research can be harnessed to solve problems in developing nations, and how the United States can contribute to that effort. But such contributions to child survival and other issues may be harder to come by in the future if trends in science and technology at USAID continue. The agency's capabilities and reputation in these areas have declined in recent years, observes a new report from the National Research Council. The report looks at how USAID can put science and technology to better use in its programs, which range from bolstering health care to aiding economic growth to responding to natural disasters.

The biggest factor in the agency's science and technology downturn has been a loss of staff with technical expertise, the report says. To reverse this development, USAID needs to hire more technically trained personnel and give knowledgeable staffers incentives to stay. The agency should also appoint a full-time science and technology adviser who can alert the administrator to new opportunities to use S&T in its programs. The goal is to create a culture of science and technology at the agency, integrating these fields deeply into its myriad development efforts.

Building strong scientific institutions abroad should be high on the agency's priority list, the report says. Developing this capacity will enable nations to both create their own new technologies and use existing knowledge more effectively. Currently, for instance, many Central American nations lack the ability to take advantage of satellite data that can predict the paths of hurricanes.

To build this expertise, USAID should sponsor more graduate-level training in various disciplines for students in developing countries. Supporting the founding of schools of public health should also be a priority, the report says, as should helping institutions acquire broadband Internet and other technologies that can help them obtain and use information.   -- Sara Frueh

The Fundamental Role of Science and Technology in International Development: An Imperative for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Committee on Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance; Development, Security, and Cooperation; Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2006, 162 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10145-X; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Thomas R. Pickering, senior vice president for international relations, Boeing Co., Arlington, Va.; and Kenneth Shine, executive vice chancellor for health affairs, University of Texas System, Austin. The study was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Sloan Foundation, and the National Research Council.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences