Meeting the world’s health challenges, boosting our economy

Now is the time to support science and technology—especially in difficult economic times. It is the right thing to do, and it makes good economic sense. In state after state, we see that public research funding is boosting the economy and spurring private investment.

As Rajiv Shah, US Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, said in a major address on the future of development aid: “We need to understand that unlike other industries, unlike an enterprise, we have no interest in our own growth and our own perpetuity. We must seek to do our work in a way that allows us to be replaced over time by efficient local governments, by thriving civil societies, and by a vibrant private sector.”

Over the course of 50 years, the American public through USAID has improved the health of people in the developing world by working with partner governments and investing in global health research that resulted in truly innovative approaches to solving some of the most challenging public health concerns of our time. This research is critical to fulfilling USAID’s development mission.

This past year, USAID and partners announced the first-ever proof-of-concept that a microbicide gel can effectively and safely reduce the transmission of HIV from men to vulnerable women, placing the power of HIV prevention in the hands of women. This was possible because of the collaboration among governments, scientists, the private sector, communities, and individual women at risk of HIV.

Tuberculosis research has led to new technologies that have the potential to revolutionize how the disease is treated and prevented, ultimately reducing the threat to Americans from drug-resistant strains overseas. Later this year, initial results of the world's most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate will be announced. Early indications suggest that it will significantly reduce episodes of malaria in babies and young children.

These discoveries were made possible, in large part, by the generosity of US taxpayers, working closely with the private sector and charitable foundations. The call for game-changing innovation is about fostering cooperation and innovation among the private sector, the academic and nonprofit communities, the international community, and US researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and USAID, among others. It is about developing world-class products—frugal innovations—that are better designed, sturdier, and cheaper for the developing world that can reduce American health care costs. 

These are the grand challenges of our time. This is also a moment of grand innovation in our country. Innovation is part of our DNA. We need to nurture innovators, create new synergies, and foster a regulatory environment that encourages the breakthroughs that are sure to come in the years ahead.

Our science and technology community is on the brink of discoveries that will improve the health of all people in the world, creating the conditions where foreign assistance is no longer needed, and bolstering America’s leadership in the scientific research that helps industry create jobs for the future. If the achievements of this past year are any indication of future progress, we will be well-positioned to better protect ourselves and the world from today’s public health threats, lead on tomorrow’s technologies, and grow the jobs that accompany them.

Dr. Alex Dehgan is the science and technology adviser to the administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Kaitlin Christenson is coalition director for the Global Health Technologies Coalition, a Washington, DC-based group of more than 35 nonprofit organizations.