New U.S. Program Funds Research Collaborations in Developing World

The 13 million people living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, sit on an "earthquake bomb," says seismologist Syed Humayun Akhter of the University of Dhaka. But as recently as a decade ago, he notes, there was not a single seismologist in the country.

That yawning talent gap is slowly closing, thanks in part to a new grants program by two U.S. agencies aimed at improving the scientific infrastructure of developing nations. Akhter is one of the first beneficiaries of the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), a joint initiative between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). He is using $30,000 from USAID to establish a seismology and geology center at the University of Dhaka that will archive, process, and analyze seismic data collected in an NSF-funded project involving Michael Steckler from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, that is researching the geology and geohazards of the Bengal Basin. "This is only possible because of grants from USAID. It was really a blessing for us," Akhter says.

Akhter and Steckler's collaboration is just one of six pilot projects to have received funding from PEER. A total of $150,000 has been awarded since January to scientists in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Mali, Kenya, and Burkina Faso who are working with NSF grantees on topics such as climate change, seismology, biodiversity, and hydrology.

"This is a win-win partnership," said NSF Director Subra Suresh speaking yesterday as the host for the program's launch. "The U.S. scientific community benefits from more robust international partnerships and an increased awareness of how research can be used to address global development challenges. Our foreign partners benefit from the expertise and enthusiasm of the U.S. scientific community, the engagement of U.S. universities, and an understanding that science can build bridges."

PEER is part of a larger effort by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah to use science and technology to help address pressing needs in the developing world. "We can define development as lack of access to the basic scientific and technical advances that so many of us take for granted," he said. Shah cited oral rehydration therapy as a simple scientific invention that has saved tens of millions of lives.

So far, USAID has pledged to spend $7 million over 5 years, an amount it calculates will leverage up to $100 million invested by NSF. Any scientists in developing countries who are collaborating with NSF-funded researchers on challenges related to renewable energy, food security, climate change, and disaster mitigation may submit a proposal, and the National Academies' National Research Council will manage the peer review process.

NSF and USAID have been working together on an informal basis since 2008. But PEER affords NSF a better way to meet the increased number of requests from researchers who are interested in adding a development component to their research, says DeAndra Beck, a program officer at NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering.

In May, Akhter, who's been collaborating with Steckler since 2003, used the PEER grant to put on a seismic training workshop for 26 Bangladeshi geoscientists from eight universities and three government institutions. Although the number of requests far exceeded the available space, it's a big improvement over the previous arrangement. "We didn't have enough funding to cover our own time," Steckler says, much less to train Bangladeshis and equip their laboratories. Adds Akhter, "USAID has the flexibility to support the underdeveloped countries for capacity building, and we took that opportunity."