Scott Anderson

NexThought Monday: Higher Education Solutions Network and the (Potential) Power Specialization: USAID’s ambitious new program will link universities, science and development

Last week ushered in what I’d consider to be the most exciting U.S. government news I’ve heard about in some time.

And no, I’m not talking about the election.

On Friday, USAID announced the launch of a Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) — an ambitious five-year partnership linking seven American and foreign universities to harness the insights of students and professors in science and technology to combat a variety of global health and development challenges.

To start, USAID is providing $26 million across the seven institutions, and could supply a total ceiling $130 million over the life of the program. The universities making up the HESN include: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California – Berkeley, Michigan State University, Duke University, Texas A&M University, The College of William & Mary, and Makerere University in Uganda. The goal is to apply science and technology, as well as entrepreneurship, to define and solve key problems in areas such as global health, food security and chronic conflict. USAID said the network will consist of 22 additional funded, and 76 non-funded partners in the U.S. and overseas.

  • Each university will establish a “Development Lab” to work with USAID’s field mission experts and Washington staff. For instance:

  • Duke University will create the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator (SEAD), a global health development lab that identifies and supports the growth of solutions to global health challenges in low- and middle-income countries.

  • UC-Berkeley’s charge is developing a new multidisciplinary lab to ready inventions for the developing world and to train a new generation of development practitioners and innovators – all under the banner of a new field of research it’s calling Development Engineering.

  • Michigan State University will focus on global food production as the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

  • MIT will head up the new International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), very much a scientific approach to poverty alleviation. The Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) — which DUSP and six other groups within MIT will help develop — will assess technologies intended to alleviate poverty and determine which will have the most impact. Other institutions involved in the new IDIN include Colorado State University, Franklin Olin College of Engineering, the University of California at Davis, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana and the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil. As part of the CITE program, MIT will work with the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, UNICEF and the World Food Program.The IDIN also will convene 12 international design summits to focus on technologies helping local development, along with the building of eight global Innovation Hubs to act as centers for technological development. The work will be multidisciplinary, including agriculture, clean drinking water, improvement of power sources in rural areas and health care projects.

And here’s another place where the rubber really could meet the road. For every $10 of USAID funding, the universities and their partners are contributing another $6.60 toward the network. Together, this collaboration will represent thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students and faculty focused identifying technology, and getting it out of the lab and into the field.

Technology transfer systems at universities, with some very notable exceptions, can be very siloed systems that fail to see the big picture. For that reason, it’s very exciting to see this new network take shape. Helping universities and institutions of higher learning focus on what they do best, and harnessing their discoveries to fight poverty, is another encouraging sign USAID is taking a true scientific approach to development.