Science for Us, but Also for the World

The Obama administration should extend its fervor for science to its foreign aid policy, putting science and technology at the heart of U.S. assistance to the developing world.
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Earlier this week, President Obama proposed a $63 billion, six-year global health initiative to address diseases in the developing world, so as to both protect Americans from health challenges that emerge from abroad and to support the dignity of people everywhere. This announcement came on the heels of his inspiring speech at the National Academy of Sciences, where he laid out how he planned to implement his inauguration day promise to "restore science to its rightful place" in the administration's domestic policies. I suggest there ought to be a connection between these two ideas: that the Obama administration should extend its fervor for science to its foreign aid policy, putting science and technology at the heart of U.S. assistance to the developing world.

As the President pointed out in his National Academy of Sciences speech, by a number of measures, U.S. support for science has flagged. Still, this country remains by far the world leader in scientific research and development. It is home to three quarters of the world's top 40 universities and is responsible for 40 percent of the total global funding for R&D. And now the President plans to dedicate 3% of the nation's gross domestic product to R&D.

Our R&D prowess should be the cornerstone of our foreign aid policy. We have much of this resource to share, even in recession. And it is needed. No country in the post-colonial era has thrived without first building its capacity to conduct scientific research. Japan and Singapore systematically harnessed science to become technological powerhouses, and the emerging economies of China and India are doing the same today.

But how, precisely, might science be better deployed in the service of foreign aid?

We could, for one thing, support the adaptation of existing technologies--from water-pumps to seed stocks to power sources--to address the immediate needs of the world's poor. If you're looking for an example of how this might work, consider the LifeWrap, a pressure device that resembles a wetsuit in pieces and was, in an older form, used to stabilize severely injured soldiers during the Vietnam War. Refined by NASA scientists in the 1990s, it was adapted by a Stanford University obstetrician who recognized its promise for stabilizing women bleeding heavily after childbirth. Obstetric hemorrhage is a leading cause of death for women in developing countries, where access to ambulances and quick trips to hospitals is often scarce. With a little training, the LifeWrap can be used by almost anybody. It has been field-tested by the University of California at San Francisco's Safe Motherhood Programs, which is further evaluating the device in Zambia and Zimbabwe and has already deployed it in Nigeria and India. Imagine how many more such innovations we might dig up if we just gave American scientists and engineers incentive to focus deliberately on the diseases and challenges of poverty.

Of course, such stopgap measures aren't likely to deliver adequate health care services or drive innovation on the scale required to rejuvenate national economies. That can only be accomplished by the thoughtful cultivation of scientific and technical capacity in developing countries.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, of which I am a part, has some experience in this kind of work. To enable the clinical evaluation of a series of candidate AIDS vaccines, we have supported the construction of laboratories and clinics at research centers with which we collaborate in five countries of sub-Saharan Africa. We have helped to train local scientists, technicians and counselors at these facilities to conduct research at the highest of international standards. These skills and resources are indispensible to the fulfillment of our long-term mission to develop an affordable and effective AIDS vaccine. But the scientific capacity generated by our collaboration has benefits that reach far beyond our organizational objectives. We have helped to establish a regional network of sophisticated laboratories staffed with top-notch researchers that may now be harnessed to find home-grown solutions to some of the region's countless medical challenges.

We are not by any means alone in our capacity-building work. Some 35 percent of the money disbursed by the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, for example, goes directly into developing human resources, infrastructure and disease-monitoring capabilities. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for its part, has been an enthusiastic supporter of our efforts to develop the lab network. If science and technology were more deeply incorporated into the fabric of U.S. foreign aid policy, we have no doubt the agency would be an enthusiastic and capable leader of all such efforts. And, as the President noted in his statement this week, such assistance would, in many cases, ultimately benefit Americans. As demonstrated by the emergence of the Mexican swine flu in the US, infectious diseases have little respect for borders; helping developing countries detect and deal with their diseases is the surest way for us to protect ourselves from new and potentially devastating epidemics.