Presentation by Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, at the Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of AAAS Fellows

Friday, May 3, 2013

Honored guests: 

It is a great honor to participate in the fortieth anniversary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) policy fellowship program.  I’d like to begin by thanking Alan Leshner, Cynthia Robinson, and their colleagues in the diplomacy security and development program for partnering with USAID, and to Alex Dehgan for his superb leadership in the science and technology arena at USAID.  And I’ll extend a particularly warm welcome to all of our current and former USAID AAAS fellows, who have enriched our Agency.

As a person who received a C-minus in the only science course he took in his academic career, I’m tempted to begin my comments by quoting James Stockdale from the 1992 vice-presidential debate: “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  Instead, I will begin by quoting President Obama.  Two months ago in his State of the Union address, President Obama said:

The United States will join with our allies to eradicate extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy, by empowering women, by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, by helping communities to feed, power and educate themselves, by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths, and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation. 

My first response was to cancel my vacation plans for the next four years.

My second response was to sign my Agency up for more AAAS fellows.

The President’s pledge was ambitious and aspirational, but it was not a pipe dream.  Over the past 15 years, the world has moved 600 million across poverty line.  Working together, we have achieved a 60 percent per capita growth in Africa, and reduced preventable child death to 7 million – still a horrendous number but arguably the lowest in my lifetime.  The world is also embracing democratic governance: at the end of Cold War, two of USAID’s partners in Africa were democracies; now, it’s two dozen.

One reason for President Obama’s call was its inspiration to a new generation of young people to embrace a purpose-driven life – similar to the impact of President Kennedy challenging young people in 1961 to a greater purpose through service in the Peace Corps and putting a man on the moon.  And as in 1961, if we are to achieve these results, it will involve the full application of science, technology and innovation.

Throughout history, the most significant achievements in human progress have been driven, to a great extent, by unprecedented advances in science and technology. 

Groundbreaking solutions to some of our world’s toughest challenges – from developing new strains of wheat and rice that ushered in the Green Revolution to inventing a new vaccine delivery tool that made global smallpox eradication possible – are the result of the power of science and technology to accelerate development.

Recognizing this, USAID has long looked to the AAAS fellowship program as an important investment in our scientific capacity.  We have hosted 401 fellows in Washington and overseas over the four decades of the fellowship program, the most of any agency.  By investing in S&T, USAID is harnessing the same forces that yielded the great cutting-edge breakthroughs of the past to transform more lives than ever before.

I came back into the government service in 2010, and the biggest change I saw was the incorporation of science, technology and innovation in our everyday development efforts.  It was as if I had to learn a new language.  There were datapaloozas, crowd-sourcing, tech challenges, and hackathons.  I used to think hackers were bad people, but now there is an NGO that calls itself “Random Hacks of Kindness.”

Through USAID’s efforts to build scientific capacity, our demand for fellows from both offices and Missions has grown – they are once again hot commodities.  Compared to a mere two fellows in 2007, this year we had a total of 56 – again, more than any other agency in the U.S. federal government.  We currently have 11 fellows at Missions overseas and we expect to double that number next year.  Once again, our fellows are part of our agency’s DNA.  Many S&T programs at USAID are led or supported by AAAS fellows, including the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research, the Higher Education Solutions Network, the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program, and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program.

  • In Indonesia, science and technology is now a top USAID Mission development objective, thanks in large part to the work of an AAAS overseas fellow.
  • Last year, a fellow wrote the first-ever progress report for Feed the Future, the President’s food security initiative, with a focus on monitoring and evaluation.
  • Another fellow, an entomologist, is working on the President’s malaria initiative to help assess its impact and to respond to new challenges like insecticide resistance.
  • Our work to build resilience in the Sahel benefits from the skills of a water resources fellow, who is helping to strengthen land-use management for farmers and pastoralists.

Equally important, many of our key functions at USAID are led by former AAAS fellows, including our global climate change coordinator Kit Batten, our chief of the maternal and child health division John Borrazzo, our director of technical support for the Middle East, and, our course, the Administrator’s science and technology adviser, Alex Dehgan, who has driven our re-engagement with science, technology and innovation with great skill and enthusiasm.

Fellows bring a thirst for understanding development and an expertise that reaches across boundaries to help solve pressing global challenges. 

So please go forth from this place and spread the word that USAID is a great place for future fellows to bring their skills to address the toughest, most complex, and most urgent challenges facing our planet.  But be forewarned: as Alex and many of his colleagues have discovered, once you get infected with the development bug, there’s usually no cure.  Thank you.  

Washington, D.C.

Last updated: May 08, 2013

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