Skip to main content

Rebuilding science at USAID

Friday, December 13th proved especially unlucky this year at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It was Alex Dehgan's last day as chief scientist, and marked the end of a four-year tenure at the agency during which he made extraordinary progress in reestablishing the role of science within foreign policy and foreign assistance.

When Dehgan arrived at USAID in early 2010, he had no staff and little budget. The agency had been without a dedicated chief scientist for nearly two decades, and in that time the role of science in policy and programs had declined significantly. The agency had only nine AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows the year prior, a rough indicator of the influence of science, down from 47 in 1992.

"People at USAID were largely supportive of the opportunity to rebuild science," Dehgan said in a recent interview.

A former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow himself, Dehgan set about to catalyze that change. He built an independent Office of Science and Technology (OST) from the ground up, and recruited a staff of over 80 to expand the role of science in USAID. To date, OST has developed programs totaling $100 million in federal funds, and used this to leverage another $400 million in the international community. USAID now employs 65 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows each year, including 15 who are placed overseas.

Dehgan and his team accumulated an extensive list of accomplishments during his tenure. Foremost among these was the establishment of five Grand Challenges for Development on topics ranging from rural clean energy to saving lives at childbirth. These Challenges were run as global competitions for new technologies and systems, with proposals evaluated for scientific merit and likelihood of success. Winners received grants to put their proposals into action.

Dehgan also helped launch the Higher Education Solutions Network, a new USAID model that partners universities with USAID, inspired by the Jet Propulsion Lab model between Caltech and NASA. Seven collaborative development labs have been formed at academic institutions, and are addressing interdisciplinary problems that range from food security to chronic conflict through better data and new technologies.

Under Dehgan's guidance, USAID has also begun to focus on the conduct of science within the agency itself.

"We drafted the Agency's first scientific integrity policy that serves as a bill of rights for scientists and technical experts," Dehgan said. The policy, available here, protects the scientific process from inappropriate influence, and ensures that USAID-funded research meets methodological and ethical standards. USAID is also set to launch an new research policy, the first update since 1994.

Reflecting on his time at USAID, Dehgan has a more optimistic view than many who have faced the bureaucracy of the federal government. He advises scientists and engineers to not underestimate "the power of a single individual to bring massive change for science and technology."

"Remember that most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done," he said, "and dare mighty things."

Blog Name