USAID/Bethany Egan

USAID Looking for Science-Based Grand Challenges

Staff Writer

During his brief stint as chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rajiv Shah helped focus and highlight research at the agency. This week he led a 2-day workshop to discuss how science could revitalize the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which he now heads.

In March, Shah hired the first science adviser at USAID in 19 years. Alex Dehgan, a tropical mammalogist, had been senior adviser at the State Department. Dehgan's office of science and technology is part of a new Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning intended to help the agency become more innovative.

Shah also hopes science and technology can help the agency solve "grand challenges" in development. The inspiration comes from a 2003 program at the Gates Foundation that identified 14 major global health challenges and invested $436 million toward findings solutions. Shah told ScienceInsider yesterday that he hopes to select as many as 20 challenges for funding in the next several months, although details aren't clear yet.

Yesterday the agency concluded a workshop that posed broad questions (pdf) about how USAID could identify, select, and implement grand challenges. USAID had solicited input via a Web site for possible challenges (e.g., "the model toilet of the future for the poor"). At the invitation-only meeting, about 60 people from academia, industry, and government began to whittle down the list and brainstorm about how to proceed. Harold Varmus, the new head of the National Cancer Institute and until recently co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, said the ultimate goal is to find projects that can lead to sustainable jobs and wealth in the developing world.

There's high-level support for the initiative, according to USAID's blog of the closed-door meeting. John Holdren, the president's science adviser, noted that his boss will be "paying close attention to the results" of the conference and will look for ways to implement some of its recommendations.