The United States has long recognized that the nation’s prosperity and security depend on how we address challenges of disasters, poverty, famine, and disease around the world. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has played a vital role in promoting U.S. national and international interests by advancing strategies for employing science, technology, and innovation (STI)1 to respond to global challenges. The focus by USAID on science, technology, and innovation is critical to improve development outcomes. At the core of this progress is the engagement of science institutions and other innovative enterprises and their commitment to work in partnership with USAID to research, test, and scale solutions.
Many 21st century challenges transcend political borders including political instability and failed states that can stimulate crises that spill over national or regional borders. Infectious diseases, such as Ebola and Zika, can rapidly spread to many countries. Increasing climate variability affects human health and the environment through many factors, including increased air and water pollution, sea-level rise, drought, and disease transmission. These forces impact all countries of the world, including the United States, but pose a disproportionate threat to the world’s poor.
This report by a committee of independent experts appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine responds to USAID’s request for an assessment and advice on the current and future role for science, technology, and innovation in assistance
1 While USAID sometimes uses the acronym “STIP” to represent science, technology, innovation, and partnerships, (along with use of S&T, STI, R&D, Research, and Partnerships on other occasions), the committee considers STI to be distinct from P—and USAID’s budget category still treats science, technology, and innovation separately from reporting on partnerships. Thus, the committee uses “STI+P” as an acronym to convey this concept. Where appropriate in specific USAID contexts, the report also uses STIP, STI, and R&D.
programs at USAID and on the role of partnerships in the public and private sectors to expand impact. The report examines challenges and opportunities for USAID in expanding the utilization of science, technology, and innovation in development assistance; assesses how USAID has deployed science, technology, and innovation; and recommends priority areas for improvement going forward in partnership with others. This summary provides for the broad audiences engaged with USAID four recommended strategies to guide USAID programming as it creates and implements new platforms focused on science, technology, innovation and partnerships for development, followed by five internal USAID management changes that would enable the agency to better achieve these strategies. These recommended strategies and management changes encompass the report’s 20 specific recommendations, all of which appear in Chapter 9.
Strategies for Science, Technology, Innovation and Partnerships in USAID Programs
We identify four programmatic strategies for improving the effectiveness and impact of science, technology, and innovation investments by USAID. These can serve as the organizing principles for USAID leadership as they help the agency to address current challenges and formulate the widest set of national and global partnerships to meet development needs.
- Accelerate the transformation of USAID into a global leader and catalyst in applying science, technology, and innovation to developing-country challenges, drawing on resources from across the U.S. government, developing countries, the public and private research enterprise, research universities in the United States and abroad, and bilateral and multilateral development agencies.
Science, technology, and innovation have brought tremendous advances around the world, from new communication tools to approaches for delivering life-saving health care. At the same time, change has meant that USAID does not work alone, but rather amid a host of institutions, financial and technology flows, global companies, and interna-
tional transactions. Global development assistance represents a decreasing, yet still critical, fraction of the total amount of international financial flows. In recent years, USAID has begun to transform itself from its traditional role of designing, implementing, and wholly funding specific projects in individual countries to that of a national and global broker of organizations and resources to achieve greater, more sustainable impact, in a more cost-effective way. Appropriate partnerships with other donor nations/agencies and host nations are vital in reaching development goals, both at the national level and to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals.
Bearing these changes in mind, USAID should recognize its core strengths: its field experience, role as a convener and catalyst, and ability to learn and adapt, and these strengths should be identified explicitly in future STI strategies identified explicitly in future STI strategies, if appropriate. By building on these strengths, it can take significant steps to position the agency as a global leader. (Recommendation 2.2) The United States brings outstanding scientific, technological, and innovation assets to development challenges through its research institutions, with their long history of applying science and engineering to development problems. U.S. universities, in their own right and in partnership with host-country counterparts, have long been embedded in USAID development planning and execution. Cutting-edge private-sector research enterprises have brought a spirit of entrepreneurship and a culture of innovation to the work of USAID. Institutional innovations at USAID, including the Grand Challenges, Development Innovation Ventures, and a new emphasis on crafting alliances to solve specific problems, have inspired traditional and nontraditional partners to come together, bringing new energy and resources to solve tough problems. As pressure on the U.S. government grows to demonstrate maximum impact for each taxpayer dollar spent on development assistance, institutionalizing the Global Development Lab and the innovations it has introduced will enable USAID to become a powerful, effective conduit for developing countries to access “whole-of-U.S.” expertise related to science, technology, and innovation in the public and private sectors.
The Global Development Lab has introduced important institutional innovations, but its impact will be limited until it is more effectively integrated with the Washington technical bureaus and field missions.
Washington-based Global Development Lab and mission staff would also benefit from personnel exchanges or short-term rotations.
As missions and bureaus develop more innovation opportunities in their portfolios, USAID should increase incentives for including informed risk-taking and learning throughout the planning process. Incentives should focus on stronger integration of evaluation processes in the project development stage that provide for real-time feedback of lessons learned, and inclusion of experts in designing scaling outcomes. (from Recommendation 4.2) To accelerate this cultural shift, the emerging practice of placing fellows and other short-term personnel with deep STI experience in missions should be expanded, perhaps by increasing the total allocation of such slots within the agency. (from Recommendation 8.1)
To perform as a more effective representative for other U.S. government science agencies in lower-income countries, USAID needs better connections with them in Washington. USAID and other U.S. agencies should set up mechanisms—such as through ad hoc advisory or working groups—to facilitate mutually beneficial relationships around common STI development concerns. (from Recommendation 3.1) This includes having a seat at the table when these agencies, including U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and NASA, plan and prioritize research agendas, so that potential relevance and impacts in low-income countries are taken into consideration. Global Development Lab leaders can play an active role in building these relationships with other science agencies. USAID should propose to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that it should create a position to be filled by an experienced USAID staff member on detail, to focus on STI+P in international development per Presidential Policy Directive-6 (PPD-6) and on coordinating interagency advisory and working group activities around common STI development issues. (from Recommendation 3.1) The benefits of such a capacity at OSTP could be felt both in foreign assistance programs as well as in the increasingly global interests of domestic U.S. agencies. The leadership of the Global Development Lab, including the recently-appointed science advisor to the administrator, should expand the Lab’s role as a principal conduit for mediating strategic directions in the use of STI+P in development, between Washington and the field, as well as among
the various stakeholders that bring value to STI in the development process. (Recommendation 8.2)
- Strengthen host countries’ institutional capacity to apply science, technology, and innovation in their own development, as well as to ensure training of individuals in higher education and professional schools both in-country and in the United States.
Successful development assistance ultimately depends on the capacity, organizational effectiveness, and political will of partner countries to create national development strategies, choose the most effective options from donors and other sources, and adapt technologies and systems they can sustain locally. Science, technology, and innovation rely on an enabling environment. USAID can use its presence, tools, and relationships to help strengthen and sustain that environment. USAID cannot impose solutions, but it can respond to host-country interests and needs and serve as a sustaining partner for long-term institutional change and capacity-building in the private and public sectors in host countries.
USAID should develop a suite of assistance mechanisms to support efforts to build capacity for research in host counties. These should include top-quality, relevant training for students with various needs, support of science institutions, and strengthening of regulatory bodies. (Recommendation 7.3) The thirst for science, technology, and innovation in all countries has opened a gap between expectations and delivery, creating demand for far greater training opportunities. Addressing this thirst for STI can be accomplished both through directly investing in scientific institutions in host countries through stimulating greater developing-country participation in innovative programs such as Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER). USAID needs to capture lessons learned from such programs for creating and sustaining collaborations with developing-country researchers and institutions. PEER, which competitively pairs U.S. and developing-country researchers, is an example of how USAID leverages financial resources and the merit-review systems of other U.S. government agencies to support developing-country science. Yet, the cost of the worldwide PEER program is only about $13 million annually.
USAID has a major opportunity to invest in both host-country research institutions, such as universities, ministries, and professional science and engineering organizations, as well as in individuals. Because of the synergistic ties between investing in individuals and institutions, USAID faces several issues. Trained individuals depend on strong institutions in their own countries in which to apply their enhanced knowledge and skills. USAID also needs better ways to evaluate the gains from such investments because impacts can take decades to manifest. Traditional economic analyses rarely take into account valuable, yet difficult-to-quantify, impacts resulting from advanced training such as enduring professional networks and partnerships. USAID should, perhaps with other development agencies and institutions, develop robust, state-of-the-art methods for assessing the impact of longer-term interventions, including investments in adaptive research and human and institutional capacity development. (Recommendation 6.3) The short lifespan of most projects at USAID has to be extended for capacity-building programs, both for effective implementation and for measurement of results.
USAID should seek ways to expand support to scientists, institutions, and innovators in the countries where it works. To ensure high research standards, USAID should expand its role in building scientific processes in host countries, such as helping to strengthen peer review, transparency and replicability, and publication and presentations of findings. USAID should focus on building and engaging with science, technology, and innovation capacity in partner countries. (from Recommendation 7.2)
- Elevate scaling of successful interventions to be a core USAID priority, to expand the impact and improve the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of science, technology, and innovation applied to development challenges.
With a global population currently at 7.4 billion and projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, development programs and their partners face a need to find ways to significantly expand the impacts of their investments in science, technology, and innovation as a matter of urgent priority. Greater focus on scaling will require a proactive focus on partnering to align resources and efforts. The development community as a
whole is wrestling with the challenge of scaling, which requires a shift away from the more traditional development focus on funder-specific projects. Emerging research on scaling points to the importance of planning for scaling impact almost from project inception, including closely tracking process data and interim impacts, building the business case for sustaining service provision after the conclusion of the project, feeding back information to project managers and changing program trajectories as needed throughout the life of the program, and identifying private- and public-sector institutions essential for scaling success. For scaling some technological innovations, USAID should focus on partners with start-up and small scale business experience with the objective of creating jobs through localized businesses. (from Recommendation 7.1)
Scaling is increasingly recognized as an urgent need across development agencies, foundations, and governments. USAID has taken steps to focus on scaling solutions in the Global Development Lab and in technical bureaus, and could be a global thought leader in how to improve this critical aspect of development. USAID management and staff incentives increasingly emphasize scaling from project design, including expanded partnerships with private- and public-sector partners, allowance for greater levels of risk-taking, and management flexibility to alter programs in the field to respond to monitoring results. USAID should continue and expand the promising institutional innovations that have helped to open the agency up to greater and more creative engagement with the private sector, universities, and non-traditional partners, including in developing countries. USAID should, for instance, invest in expanding the staged funding model pioneered through its Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), which is intended to identify promising new or existing ideas, rigorously test them, and support their going to scale. (Recommendation 5.3)
To elevate scaling as a priority, USAID needs a sharpened policy focus on the value of and access to data to set strategies and measure results. Advanced 21st century data tools, including incorporation of big data, should set the standard for major USAID units to collect, curate, analyze and share such data for maximum value. Expanding the GeoCenter portfolio would send an important signal to the rest of USAID. The focus on data will also facilitate its dialogues with partner countries, taking into account each country’s contextual factors, and
enable the larger funder community to join forces on common goals. (Recommendation 2.1) Central to such partnerships for scaling is a much greater focus on evidence and data to identify opportunities, drive priority selection, and track indicators of program progress that enable real-time management.
Additional research is necessary to understand how best to bring an innovation to scale in lower-income countries. USAID, with partner countries, other donors and industry, should expand research to better understand factors affecting whether an innovation goes to scale or not. (from Recommendation 7.1) USAID needs to understand how program design and implementation may need to be modified to improve the possibilities of scale, and to ensure the sustainability of scaling over the long term. The results of this research should enable USAID to build on longer-term investments in later-stage development of innovations and bridging the gap to expand beyond a promising pilot to wider adoption by a growing network of partners. Much scaling involves commercialization of publicly funded efforts. Private-sector advisors and partners will have much to offer. Particularly valuable would be the application of evidence-based methods to plan, implement, and evaluate development programs.
Big data can enable partnerships that are integral to successful scaling and sharing research results across countries and organizations. Data with uniform geophysical identifiers facilitate this sharing. USAID could play a more proactive role in U.S. government-wide big data discussions and planning to understand potential impacts for low-income countries and how to help them participate in data initiatives. This role could be identified explicitly in future science, technology, and innovation strategies.
- Expand investments in science, technology, and innovation that engage and empower women.
Through education and access to the formal economy, empowering women can sharply increase the global human potential to address societal challenges. Highly regarded development programs focus on this gender potential across all sectors, given the power of science, technology, and innovation to contribute to the advancement of women. Expanding women’s opportunities leads to better living conditions
through improvements in education, health, and agriculture, and through access to technology and economic opportunities.
USAID recognizes science, technology, and innovation for their value as a programming tool for greater gender equality and women's empowerment as outcomes. At the same time, engagement of women and men is needed to advance development with science, technology, and innovation as an outcome. USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy identifies partnerships as key to efforts to increase gender equality and female empowerment.
USAID appropriately addresses a broad and diverse range of interrelated issues, where science and technology can lead to solutions, such as improving health for women and girls, promoting gender equality and access to education, addressing the Internet gender gap, and achieving gender equality in agriculture. Some STI-focused USAID programs have well-developed, data-based gender analyses and use this information to shape programming, but others still face challenges in data collection and accessing sufficiently sophisticated analytical capabilities to use in their science, technology, and innovation programs. In addition to gender analyses of STI+P-related initiatives specifically targeted at gender equality and women's empowerment, each mission director and office director should ensure that all STI+P projects consider a gender analysis at all stages of the program cycle. Central collection and review of such analyses would enable more rapid institutional learning across the missions and program units. (Recommendation 7.4) Central collection, review, and sharing of gender data and analyses would enable more rapid institutional learning across missions and program units.
Recommended Management Changes for Supporting Science, Technology, and Innovation within USAID
Many management practices relate to the success of USAID’s science, technology, and innovation programs. We identify five management changes below that are particularly important to implement the agency’s programmatic strategies: its field presence and experience, its ongoing relationships with multiple host-country stakeholders, its role as a convener and catalyst, and its ability to learn and adapt.
- Reinforce its on-the-ground presence to collaborate with others mutually engaged in science, technology, and innovation for development.
Through its U.S. and host-country staff, USAID has valuable on-the-ground knowledge and understanding of the development opportunities and constraints in the more than 100 countries where it works. After decades of building relationships across societies and institutions, USAID missions, backed by strong technical capabilities in Washington, are in a position to work in partnership with host-country leaders, as well as other U.S. agencies, to identify and articulate development needs and priorities and to harness science, technology, and innovation to address them. USAID should improve its approach to building and engaging with STI+P capacity in partner countries, both directly and indirectly through innovative programs such as DIV, PEER, and Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). The agency should intensify use of its expanded evaluation methodologies to identify lessons from these programs in creating and sustaining collaborations with developing country researchers and institutions. (Recommendation 5.2) It can also work with science and research communities in high-income countries to focus their knowledge, energy, and skills on solving key development problems.
- Integrate and coordinate its science, technology, and innovation planning and investments.
USAID should bring together STI experts from pillar bureaus, the Lab, missions, and the host countries via face-to-face workshops and webinars, regionally and/or topic-based, to share information on available STI resources and state-of-the-art advances. (Recommendation 4.1) The Global Development Lab, the technical bureaus, and the administrator’s science advisor are critical actors to effect this integration. To succeed, they will need to devote more resources to productive engagement with missions and each other, determining together where the agency has a strategic advantage for innovation and which existing and new tools and inclusive partnerships to develop to make progress.
USAID leadership has taken initial organizational steps to build on its strength as a convener and catalyst for scaling. Two programs, the Grand Challenges for Development (GCD) and Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), are examples of initiatives that have begun to extend the agency’s reach in seeking competitively selected scientific and technological solutions to address key development challenges. These programs have attracted a range of new partners and produced new technologies, and several funded projects have or are likely to go to scale. Despite high-level support for science, technology, and innovation, however, approaches like the GCD and DIV are not yet fully incorporated into the design toolbox of missions and bureaus.
Tracking of investments in science, technology, and innovation by USAID and its partners is a basic tool for accountability. It will also help the agency coordinate resources more effectively internally and with external partners. Currently, a myriad of budget-tracking methods makes a clear accounting impossible. USAID and the Department of State should seek clearer guidance from the White House (Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget) on technical possibilities for reporting STI+P expenditures. USAID leadership should choose a single option to more clearly quantify its STI+P investments and lead an inventory of STI+P-related investments in developing countries across all federal agencies, which would help inform its own and other agencies’ efforts. (Recommendation 3.2)
- Address its future workforce needs by promoting the flexibility required to adapt to changing science, technology, and innovation opportunities.
Personnel ceilings on USAID staff mandated by Congress have long been a major concern. The concern is partly a matter of numbers, but even more whether USAID has the right mix of trained personnel—from whatever source to meet program requirements going forward. Personnel numbers and qualifications remain constraints to implement USAID’s ambitious STI+P goals. These constraints may grow, due to mission security challenges and/or the high costs of overseas assignments. The necessary staff mix includes those who can design and articulate STI strategies across sectors and regions; those who can test, adapt, and deploy STI at scale; those who can work with host-country partners; and
those who can identify, develop, and implement partnerships with the best STI sources in the United States and around the globe. USAID has shown considerable ingenuity in expanding the technical expertise of its staff, both by doubling the size of the Foreign Service, with hires in technical backstops, by borrowing staff from other agencies, and through prestigious fellowship programs.
USAID should set up formal and informal exchanges to strengthen STI+P coordination and share expertise. For example, USAID could establish, through Interagency Personnel Agreements or other mechanisms, a way for USAID staff to have short-term or long-term assignments in other agencies to understand their expertise and constraints. (from Recommendation 3.3)
- Increase incentives for including informed risk taking and learning throughout its planning process and project implementation.
New technologies of the 21st century—the Internet, smart phones, mobile banking, low-cost solar power, and replicable microenterprise models—will enable the development of tools and processes in unprecedented ways. It is vital that USAID leadership nurture an institutional culture that rewards openness to and experimentation with new technologies and their application to developing world problems.
Country planning is a core element of USAID decision making and allocation of resources. The process can improve with stronger integration upfront with evaluation processes and real-time feedback of lessons learned, as well as with experts to bring in considerations of scaling outcomes from the outset.
USAID should expand incentives for mission and Washington staff to systematically incorporate science, technology, and innovation approaches as they develop programs and projects. (from Recommendation 5.1) Career development and advancement opportunities should also recognize individual risk taking and initiative around STI. (from Recommendation 4.2) Along with the standard career incentives, staff would gain from receiving the necessary training and real-time mentorship to oversee, facilitate, and manage the expanding portfolio of relevant activities conducted by project implementers. Exchanges
with other U.S. technical agencies, as suggested above, would also offer hands-on training.
Contracting modes for STI implementers should be the focus of simplification. Pilot efforts involving central bureaus and key missions are real-time experiments for building this capacity, and should be encouraged across more Washington offices and additional missions. (from Recommendation 5.1)
- Take advantage of its strong evaluation policy for the development of sustainable science, technology, and innovation programs across the agency.
The importance of evaluations to successful long-term economic development is clear, and USAID already has many evaluation policies and tools on which to draw. The increased sophistication of evaluation approaches in USAID’s democracy and governance, health, and economic growth programs creates models for improving evaluation and using evaluation results to improve program operations and outcomes. With agency evaluation policies in place, the leadership needs to emphasize implementation and push for greater testing of new tools and lessons from recent experience in evaluation. USAID needs to ensure compliance with its policies on collecting relevant baseline data, and that midcourse reviews are fully utilized to enable managers to adapt or pivot in order to achieve success. (Recommendation 6.1)
USAID should develop clear guidelines on the intensity of evaluation for each kind of programmatic activity, incorporating appropriate M&E tools that would help project developers to better calibrate their investments with an appropriate balance between cost burden and potential program gains. Much could be learned about appropriate monitoring and evaluation design from the current pilot efforts being implemented, with the engagement of program staff at all levels and across all missions/bureaus. (Recommendation 6.2)
In sum, USAID faces a number of operational issues to implement and sustain an expanded focus on science, technology, and innovation. These issues include adequate technically qualified personnel levels, incentives for such professional tracks, and resolving contracting hurdles to initiating innovative programs. USAID has expanded the technical expertise of staff by doubling the size of the Foreign Service, bor-
rowing staff from other agencies, and taking advantage of fellowship programs. But the agency also needs to support science, technology, and innovation with a change of culture to promote an increased appetite for risk-taking, additional training, promotion, and rewards to permanent staff (Foreign Service, Civil Service, and Foreign Service Nationals) for longer-term success and impact.
Science, technology, innovation, and partnerships are vital to solve 21st century problems. Scientific research produces discoveries to improve lives and societies; technological breakthroughs revolutionize commerce and knowledge-sharing; and innovation inspires people to seek new solutions to persistent problems. Partnerships in all three of these areas potentially maximize the impact of efforts by individuals and groups to reach millions, rather than just thousands, of people with unmet needs. By integrating science, technology, and innovation throughout its operations in Washington and in the field, and by taking advantage of the continual quest for knowledge and progress embodied in science, technology, and innovation, USAID can make a deep and lasting improvement in the lives of people and their communities on behalf of the American people and U.S. foreign policy.
USAID has built a well-earned reputation over 50 years for bipartisan support in Congress and administrations; engagement of U.S. businesses, universities, and development-oriented nongovernmental organizations; and effectiveness in promoting economic growth and meeting human needs in the countries it has assisted. And most importantly for the purposes of this study, USAID has repeatedly demonstrated the value of science, technology, and innovation to inform and enhance development outcomes.