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Science and International Development Policy

WASHINGTON, DC – On the surface, the village at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains looks similar to its neighbors. Men stand near the canal wearing traditional kalpak hats, children play in the river, and women bake naan, the round flaky Kyrgyz bread. But unlike other communities along the Aspara River, this village is addressing the water security challenges they face, rather than ignoring them.

Supported by a science-based international development program, the newly created local water management council now meets with a similar council across the international border in Kazakhstan. Together, the councils solved a decades-old problem that affected the ability to feed children, threatened regional security, and prevented enforcement of a 1948 treaty determining how much water each village may use to grow crops.

Applying local solutions to development challenges, these Kyrgyz water management councils built diversion canals and installed a simple meter to monitor the amount of water used by each village. Constructed from material available in the villages, the new canals connect to the meter and computers, allowing real-time water-flow data to be shared in each village. Though the development assistance has concluded, these international water managers now are mitigating the impact of increasing water flow from glacial melt, while intensifying regional agriculture demand by co-designing water-use forecasts and planting drought-tolerant crops.

Scientific water management thus solved both a development problem and a diplomatic problem, increasing water supply and fostering habits of transnational cooperation that empower villagers to tackle problems. A team of scientists and engineers, rather than diplomats and conflict-resolution experts, can provide a valuable pragmatic lens on what may appear to be a tangled set of political and cultural issues. During US-Soviet arms-control negotiations during the Cold War, and, more recently, during international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Western and Iranian physicists often found common ground more readily than the politicians.

Science- and engineering-based solutions to global challenges have also sparked major innovations, such as the Green Revolution, which tackled the devastation caused by wheat rust, and pioneering immunization techniques that dramatically reduced the spread of measles and polio. And such solutions continue to address development challenges. A recently developed microbicide reduces the transmission of HIV/AIDS by 39%. Geospatial data locate freshwater sources and improve development assistance effectiveness. And a new diagnostic tool identifies the presence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and guides medical staff to precise treatment solutions.

The list goes on. The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) alerts governments to possible food shortages. The Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program provides real-time information about impending natural disasters, from volcanoes to subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis. Looking forward, dirt-powered fuel cells could light remote villages so children can study, and large-scale water desalination plants may generate drinking water from the ocean.

These are all examples that Mark Green, who has just been nominated to head up the US Agency for International Development, should bear in mind. Green’s commitment to the “aid reform agenda” has been hailed by organizations like the US Global Leadership Coalition, a network of CEOs and NGOs committed to elevating both development and diplomacy. And he was deeply involved in establishing the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides aid to countries that meet clearly specified economic and political criteria.

To advance his goals, Green would do well to increase the role of science and technology in development practice, building on the work of the Global Development Lab at USAID, launched by Barack Obama’s administration. Scientific experimentation and technological innovation advance effectiveness and accountability through clear metrics of success and failure.

Evidence-based solutions call for evidence: results delivered, not resources invested. Original development solutions grounded in science are thus created in parallel with innovative monitoring systems that require program evaluation. The result is an efficient and effective use of public and private financing.

Moreover, science and technology-based approaches to development can sidestep partisan posturing. Notwithstanding the intense political debate in the US over climate change, science is upheld globally as a neutral endeavor, and often provides an opportunity for bilateral and multilateral cooperation that complements – and strengthens – diplomatic relationships. In recent years, a large number of civilian agencies – including those with a science focus – have been engaging in international assistance programs and initiatives, covering areas such as public health, education, disease prevention, police training, trade promotion, and clean water.

Perhaps most important, the scientific method instills habits of mind – the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and good government – that are not only intrinsically valuable, but also essential for twenty-first-century economic progress. In a 2016 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande described science as “a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.”

That commitment implies a “weird way of being,” Gawande continued. “You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them.”

Science and technology can never be a panacea; the neutrality of the scientific method will always run up against the passions and interests of politics, which can drive scientists to create nerve gas and atomic weapons as readily as new seeds and desalinated water. Still, now more than ever, in what Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt calls the “age of intelligence,” the dissemination of new tools and habits to expand knowledge is a core element of human development around the world.