How does the US take on the omicron variant and other global challenges?

The past year and a half exposed the fragility of human existence. Just as we started imagining a post-COVID country with the expansion of vaccine authorization to children 5 and older, the omicron variant emerged to outpace the delta variant, and the U.S. has reached a grim milestone of more than 836,000 deaths.

This summer, Hurricane Ida brought record intensity and devastating floods to areas historically not vulnerable to flooding, resulting in dozens of lives lost. Just recently, unseasonably powerful storms in the central U.S. generated massive tornadoes that dealt a heavy blow to states like Kentucky and Arkansas, also with loss of life. Uncontaminated wildfires have been occurring more frequently and more extensively in the American West, impacting communities, charring crops and wildlands and severely affecting air quality across the country. These and the many other extreme events have adverse downstream implications on the national employment landscape, food and consumer product supply chains, and the health of individuals including mental health and chronic diseases.

When the problems are so large and the implications so grave, how is it even feasible to begin the monumental task of attaining solutions? We should begin with the recognition that these challenges, while painfully felt locally in our neighborhoods and cities, are global in nature. In the most extreme way, we observed that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 don’t apply for visas or stop at border crossings.  Similarly, environmental changes and biodiversity loss can intensify — or mitigate — climate change impacts and the extreme weather events that result.

Given the global and complex nature of these problems, we need scientists from around the world contributing their talent and expertise to find solutions. While it seems unlikely that a researcher in Lebanon could provide key knowledge to help with earthquake-induced landslides in the state of Washington, that’s exactly what happened as a result of a USAID-funded mechanism that provided resources and a mechanism to foster international research collaborations. This program is coming to an end, just when we may need it the most.  

The Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program provides a platform for scientists in low and middle-income countries to partner with U.S. scientists who have received competitive, merit reviewed funding from nine federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Implemented by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, over the past 10 years, PEER has invested in almost 400 highly relevant research projects involving collaboration between scientists from lower and middle-income countries and their U.S.-agency funded partners.

Examples of these efforts include Sierra Leonean researchers working with researchers at Tulane University to study the prevalence and outbreak of Lassa Fever, a hemorrhagic illness similar to Ebola; Indonesian researchers working with researchers at the University of Notre Dame to advise regional and national government on improving mosquito and infectious disease management; Colombian researchers working with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to improve wildfire management and response; Armenian researchers working with researchers at the Virginia Water Resources Research Center to reduce the impact of fish farming on Armenia’s scarce groundwater; and Kenyan researchers working with researchers at the Smithsonian Institution to examine the behavioral and cultural practices that potentially expose communities to zoonotic, or animal to human, disease transmission. 

We must continue to find ways to bring the brightest minds and the most creative thinking to the table, not simply for conversation, but for action so that we can avoid the next global crisis and its impact to our shores. Our investments in global research collaboration have significant returns, not simply for international partners, but for the U.S. research community. We need to continue supporting programs like PEER that generate results, expand innovative approaches to solve complex problems, and engage diverse stakeholders to achieve transformative solutions and foster the global goodwill that will determine the future of our planet and its people. Now more than ever, the need to foster international research collaboration and to direct resources to data-driven policymaking is imperative.

Our global challenges have no borders, nor can they be solved by a single team of researchers or single nation alone. We recognize that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. On Sept. 11, 2021, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that the world faces “a pivotal moment” given the “enormous stress” on every front.  We agree.

Alex Dehgan, Ph.D., is the CEO of Conservation X Labs, and former chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Follow Dehgan on Twitter: @lemurwrangler

Annica Wayman, Ph.D., is associate dean in the College of Natural & Mathematical Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and former division chief at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Follow Wayman on Twitter: @Annica_Sci4Dev

DeAndra Beck, Ph.D., is associate dean of Research in International Studies and Programs at Michigan State University, the first land grant university in the country and has worked in international research and policy across a number of U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Foreign Agricultural Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the National Science Foundation. Follow Michigan State University’s International Studies and Programs: @MSUIntl

This piece has been updated.

Tags Alex Dehgan Annica Wayman Coronavirus COVID-19 DeAndra Beck Delta International omicron Pandemic Public health

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