Ivorian Refugees Along the Liberian Border

“The goal is to get the world’s poor on the research agenda of the nation’s top universities,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education in its coverage of the announcement that the U.S. Agency for International Development will disburse $100 Million over the next five years to schools with winning concepts.

This initiative represents a return to a much tighter relationship between USAID and the nation’s institutions of higher learning. It also represents a return to a science and technology focus as USAID will have its first science and technology office in 20 years.

Alexander Dehgan, the agency’s top science adviser wants to use the power of university research to reach beyond the typical approaches to development. He wants students to get involved in a big way. He also wants to do a little bit of social engineering within Universities themselves. He believes that the 19th century ‘discipline silos’ need to be broken down and that new trans-disciplinary paradigms need to emerge. In other words he wants universities to act and think different, to paraphrase the 90’s Apple advertisement.

It’s rare that a government agency gets out front on issues of major social change but USAID may really be on to something here. As Dehgan told the Chronicle its no longer going to be about ‘what’s your major?” but rather “what major global problem are you working on?”

It might be a lot to ask but it sure sounds cool.

(Note: Not to be outdone Harvard has launched its own innovation challenge. It will make $100,000 available to student teams who come up with the best entrepreneurial solutions to major development challenges.

Photo by: M. Keating 7/11