USAID Launches Development Labs at Seven Universities

Last week, OSTP Director John P. Holdren joined USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in launching the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN)  – a groundbreaking partnership between USAID and seven top universities that is designed to harness the ingenuity and passion of university faculty and students  to develop innovative solutions to global development challenges.

USAID’s HESN was first announced at the White House in February 2012 and its formal launch marks the latest milestone in the Administration’s work to leverage US comparative advantages in science, technology, and innovation to accelerate progress toward global development goals. The effort is a direct response to the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development, which calls for investments in game-changing innovations with the potential to solve long-standing development challenges—such as vaccines for neglected diseases; drought-resistant seed varieties; and clean energy technologies.

Fully achieving this vision will require what the President has called an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. That is why we are so enthusiastic about HESN: it embodies a new way of doing business—one that empowers innovators around the world to tackle big development challenges (a model that Administrator Shah has dubbed “Open Source Development”).  We are also pleased that the HESN will leverage the stores of untapped energy and expertise that reside on university campuses. The seven HESN universities were selected from nearly 500 applications from 49 states and 33 countries.  And, the pulse of student interest on campuses across the country is nearly palpable.

With financial support from USAID matched by private sector partners, each of the seven universities will establish a Development Lab with a unique focus. For example, the Development Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will publish a Consumer Reports-style series of evaluations that will help donors and policymakers invest in the best existing technological solutions; the University of California Berkeley will establish a new field of Development Engineering and shepherd a portfolio of specific development solutions – such as low-cost, solar-powered vaccine refrigerators – through the pipeline of research, field evaluation, translation, and scale-up; and the College of William and Mary will build a world-class research consortium of geographers, economists, epidemiologists, political scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians to collect, geo-code, and analyze data to enable USAID and developing country governments to make hard-nosed, evidenced-based decisions.  All seven of the Development Labs – including Labs at Duke, Michigan State, Texas A&M, and Makerere University in Uganda - will work closely with USAID’s field mission experts and Washington staff at every step along the way.

Congratulations to USAID and to the university leaders, faculty, students, and staff that will be key to the success of the Higher Education Solutions Network.  By ensuring that faculty tenure- and promotion-policies encourage and reward social impact, interdisciplinary work, and international engagement; by pursuing Grand Challenges for global development; and by adopting humanitarian licensing strategies that increase global access to university-developed technologies– we hope all universities will embrace the critical role they can play in global development.

To learn more about the HESN, please visit: http://www.usaid.gov/hesn

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

Robynn Sturm Steffen is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

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