The Program of Science and Technology Cooperation broke ground for USAID. It may have also, been premature.
PSTC introduced biotechnology to developing nations, directed attention both to personal computers and the Internet, pioneered in the protection of biodiversity, and indirectly strengthened the role of science at USAID. Created by a Democratic administration, supported through the following two Republican administrations, and abolished during another Democratic administration, PSTC was deliberately insulated from many USAID procedures.
Back when the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) took place in 1979, I served as Deputy Director of the USAID Office and as the Agency’s liaison for the Conference planning.
The Conference raised global interest in science and technology as development tools, directing attention specifically to the needs to strengthen research and development of new technologies to meet the needs of the poor. However, it took place in the midst of demands by poor nations in the United Nations for a New International Economic Order in which economic power shifted from donors to recipient nations. The Conference resulted in a resolution calling for a billion dollar fund for S&T under control of a new UN body. While that organization was created, it never received nearly the proposed funding and was abolished after several years of work.
Although there were once plans to create an independent government Agency in the field of science and technology cooperation, Congress only approved a Program, the PSTC, with the proviso that it be located within USAID. The first year funding (FY1980) was $12 million, with additional funding each subsequent year until the 1990s.
Under the Reagan administration, the PSTC was chartered to fund more innovative and collaborative scientific and technological efforts than had been supported by USAID previously. It was seen as complementary to established USAID efforts such as its support for the International Agricultural Research Centers and its support for development of technologies related to family planning and tropical diseases. PSTC introduced peer-reviewed small research grants for innovative scientific research to the foreign assistance program.
Most of the resources for the program were devoted to these research grants.
Networks were created to carry out research on selected problems: diagnosis and epidemiology of acute respiratory infections in children, rapid epidemiological assessment methods, mosquito vector field studies, tropical trees, and biological nitrogen fixation (to reduce the need for expensive fertilizers)
Individual grants were also made in a number of research areas including biotechnology and immunology, and chemistry for world food needs.
The program received thousands of research proposals over the years of its existence; hundreds were funded – too many to describe in this brief statement. A few examples might give a flavor of what was accomplished:
- Pneumonias were and are a major cause of death in young children. Those caused by bacteria often respond to antibiotics, but antibiotics don’t help patients with viral pneumonia. When the network studying the epidemiology of respiratory disease was created, the frequencies of the specific viral and bacterial agents causing pneumonia in developing nations was unknown. Taking advantage of newly available diagnostic reagents, the NRC made 14 grants to teams in Africa, Asia and Latin America, creating a network to improve understanding of the epidemiology of pneumonias. Considerable attention was given to standardizing the research techniques among countries. A special issue of a major journal was published with results from the network’s studies, and the World Health Organization revised its guidelines for treatment of pneumonias in developing countries based significantly on the network’s findings.
- The PSTC biotechnology programs were probably the first significant source of funding for biotechnology research in developing nations, helping to begin establishing capacity to use the new techniques in biomedical and crop research. Some of the results were impressive. For example, Joanna Dobereiner, a Brazilian scientist, used advanced techniques to study nitrogen fixing organisms. She showed that they existed in conjunction not only with legumes but also with grasses. Her most spectacular results were observed with some varieties of cane sugar which can produce 200 kg of Nitrogen per hectare from associated nitrogen fixing bacteria, and high yields – above 160 tons per hectare – without nitrogen fertilizer. We learned that these varieties were eventually used widely in Brazil.
- A small grant allowed Costa Rica to establish an Internet backbone for its universities. NASA connected the Costa Rican backbone via satellite to the global Internet without charge to Costa Rica. The Costa Rican backbone quickly grew into a Central American Internet backbone, and introduced the agency to the Internet – all with a $150 thousand investment.
- A grant to Indian meteorologists, supplemented by access to supercomputers donated by the NOAA’s National Weather Service, allowed collaboration on the study of the Indian monsoon, and introduced the Agency to the study of climate.
Often the researchers worked under extremely difficult conditions. Perhaps the most severe were those faced by a team studying biodiversity in Rwanda. When the holocaust occurred in that country, the principal investigator of the PSTC project was able to walk to the Kenyan coast, and his American collaborator arranged for his further travel to the U.S. He worked in his partner’s lab in the United States until it was safe for him to return to Rwanda. His team of fieldworkers took all the materials and data that had been gathered into their homes and continued to work there during the crisis. A number of other activities were also conducted under the program. For example, the NRC conducted a number of meetings to discuss S&T priorities, publishing findings under the imprimatur of the National Academy Press. A conference in 1982 focused on biotechnology, leading to the PSTC priority programs mentioned above as well as to initiatives in other organizations. A set of four publications in the 1980s on microcomputer policy and applications in developing nations was widely influential. The Press also published a number of monographs on under-exploited resources of potential economic value to developing nations.
The program also provided the core funding for a cooperative agreement with the American Association for the Advancement of Science which allowed offices in USAID to offer fellowships for post-doctoral scientists to work in USAID for a year or two in order to learn about international development. Hundreds of scientists eventually participated in this program including Kerry Ann Jones, currently Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science and Jill Conley, currently managing the international program for the Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute. Some others, such as David O’Brien, remained in USAID as career officers.
Thus, PSTC served as a model for other projects. Lessons learned during the PSTC’s years of operations were applied not only in other offices of USAID but in other agencies. However, PSTC may have been created before its time. When the program was started in 1980, developing nations had relatively little scientific capacity and the opportunities for collaboration were limited. Today, according to the latest figures from UNESCO, there are 2.7 million researchers in developing nations compared with 1.4 million in the United States; almost one-third of the world’s scientific publications are produced in developing countries, compared with one-fifth in the United States.
Now there are good opportunities for true collaboration between American and developing country researchers in almost all areas of science. Moreover, the importance of technological innovation in economic development is much more widely recognized in developing as well as developed nations. Today a reinvented PSTC might be even more successful.