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Investing in Game Changers

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For 15 years, HIV/AIDS researchers have pursued a breakthrough that has proved elusive: a way for women to protect themselves from HIV infection. In mid-July, a study funded by USAID and the South African government put that breakthrough within reach. Evidence from field trials showed that an anti-retroviral microbicide gel can reduce the risk of HIV infection in women effectively by half. These trial results, which were celebrated on newspaper front pages around the world, represent a major milestone in the battle to contain the still expanding AIDS epidemic. They also underscore the role that science, technology, and innovation can play in addressing vexing global challenges.

The search for elusive solutions to development "grand challenges" is what brought together many leading scientists, inventors, engineers, and technologists recently at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). For two days, this group focused its collective brainpower on how modern knowledge and innovation tools can be used to address longstanding development challenges, such as:

  • How to sustainably provide electricity to rural and hard-to-reach communities in the developing world;
  • How to make education available anytime, anywhere, for anyone;
  • How to better manage and coordinate responses to humanitarian crises and conflicts;
  • How to create resilience in staple grain crops to environmental change and variability; and
  • How to provide high-quality, affordable, primary health care in rural communities.

Each of these challenges will require investments not just in new technologies, but in social and economic sciences as well -- to see, for example, how behavioral sciences can inform the development of health messages that will persuade individuals to make smarter choices, or how new business models can bring renewable, off-grid energy to hundreds of millions of people who lack access to power and electricity.

We are on the cusp of a new era in global development. In the past, global development advances required large infusions of resources and intellectual capital by a few donor nations. While these investments are still critical, they no longer tell the whole story. As Secretary Clinton has noted, technological advances can be great equalizers that increase opportunity and prosperity for all. Mobile phones in particular are empowering people to improve their lives and hold their governments accountable.

For example, we saw in Haiti that despite the massive devastation caused by the earthquake, Haitians still kept their cell phones charged - by rigging up car batteries, inverters, and spare parts. Because of this, text messaging became a critical form of communication in the weeks and months following the January 12 earthquake.

In June, USAID took that idea a step further, launching an initiative with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enable Haitians to save and borrow money securely on their cell phones. This investment could help make Haiti - a country where fewer than 10 percent of people have ever used a commercial bank - a hub for a global "m-banking" revolution.

Similarly, the Internet enables individuals in developing countries, students, and other professionals to apply their collective talents to tough problems at an unprecedented scale. For example, InnoCentive, a company that presents grand challenges to a community of online "solvers", boasts more than 200,000 members - nearly half of whom are from developing countries.

President Obama understands the importance of science, technology, and innovation for global development, and he has provided much-needed leadership in this area. The President's National Security Strategy, which lays out a strategic approach for advancing American interests, calls for stronger relationships among American scientists, universities, and researchers and their counterparts abroad. The President's forthcoming global development policy directive will support investment in game-changing innovation for health, green energy, agriculture, and other development applications. And the Administration's signature development initiatives - the Global Health Initiative and the Feed the Future food security initiative - include strong applied research and innovation components, which can be powerful force multipliers to accelerate progress toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Structurally, we are making changes to take better advantage of U.S. Government science, technology, and innovation resources for global development. For example, USAID is creating a center of excellence for science and technology, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the State Department have worked together to support a U.S. science envoy program to deploy some of the country's most distinguished scientists to identify opportunities for greater collaboration with scientific communities around the world.

Wise investments in the creation and distribution of scientific and technical knowledge will allow us to leapfrog development problems that previously took generations to tackle. Now is the time to think strategically, and across sectors and boundaries, about how we can better deploy science, technology, and innovation in the service of humanity, to advance development in ways that can dramatically and positively change people's lives.

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