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A 'DARPA' Approach to U.S. Foreign Aid

In a further move to bolster the role of science and technology in foreign aid, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) today announced major awards at seven universities in the United States and abroad to support "development labs" that will design innovative, low-cost approaches to improving health and reducing poverty and conflicts. "This is USAID trying to build a DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] for development," says Alex Dehgan, the agency's science adviser. DARPA has a reputation for backing high-risk research projects that produce big payoffs, from the Internet to stealth aircraft.

The USAID program is for $130 million over 5 years, with a 60% required match from the universities. Each of the seven institutions will receive grants of up to $5 million a year for projects aimed at developing useful technologies. As an example, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah cited a cheap bucket filter designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to take arsenic out of ground water in Bangladesh. "We want that kind of student ingenuity to show us what is possible," Shah said in a teleconference.

Science and technology have received a greater emphasis at the agency since Shah took over. USAID has started a grand challenges grant program, which invests in new technologies for small-scale farmers, early education of children, and other needs. In addition, the agency also puts millions into an innovation ventures fund, which takes a venture capital approach to funding new ideas. USAID also now partners with the U.S. National Science Foundation to give grants to boost science in developing countries.

For the new program, called the Higher Education Solutions Network, USAID issued a call for proposals in February. They received more than 500 proposals, which were peer reviewed by several panels. The goal was to have interdisciplinary teams, with already funded partners, that would set up new hubs and networks in the developing world. Compared with existing USAID programs, Shah said: "We expect this to be more upstream, with more interdisciplinary collaborations, and more open space to come up with new solutions." Shah said that USAID intends to have more requests for proposals in the future.

The agency is focusing on problems to be solved, but "not dictating the ways to solve it," Dehgan says.

Pedro Sanchez, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, likes the concept. "It's very innovative," he says. "It's very open, very interdisciplinary. It's a great step forward."

The winners are: