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On the ground

Interview with Dr. Alex Dehgan

Dr. Alex Dehgan is the science and technology advisor to the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and heads the office of science and technology within the new bureau of policy, planning, and learning. He is the first fulltime science advisor at USAID in 19 years and has put together a staff of about 20, which includes people on assignment from other parts of the US Government. Prior to coming to USAID, Dehgan was a senior scientist and policy advisor to the science advisor to the Secretary of State, where he worked on science diplomacy issues with the Muslim world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He also was the founding Afghanistan country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan biodiversity conservation program, and he has focused much of his academic research on questions involving extinction of species, including looking at 12 lemur species during environmental change in tropical forests in Madagascar.

Q: What got you first interested in science and research?

A: It started when I was young, and I was deeply interested in scientific issues, particularly extinction and biology and political systems, and how those factors interacted.

Q: Can give you some examples from your experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or Madagascar in which science has aided diplomacy?

A: Can I give you several examples? They are all so rich. Let me start with Iran and the potential use of science diplomacy. When we think of Iran, we think of a very antiquated society. But Iranians are number one in the world in the growth of scientific publications. … Part of the conceit of the history of Iran is science and technology, which was their way of modernization, in solving problems. For us, science is something we value as Americans because of its meritocracy, transparency, open debate. … If you think about Iran, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East, generally the leaders are scientists, engineers, or physicians. Can we use the tools of science to solve the problems we have in common? I see it as a way of advancing the common understandings between countries.

In Iraq, in the first interim government, 80 percent of the high-level leaders were also scientists, engineers, or physicians. In this US Administration, for the first time in US history, we have five Nobel Prize winners and 30 members of the National Academies. Science provides us with a common language; a way to bridge divides with other cultures.

There’s an example with Afghanistan, involving environmental diplomacy. Eighty percent of the population is in the countryside and they are dependent on natural resources. So to ensure the stability in Afghanistan, you have to ensure the stability of natural resources. The alternative is the population will migrate into cities. It is a difficult environment to live in, but it is as much a biological silk road as it is a cultural silk road, from hyenas to snow leopards, to grizzly bears, to black bears, to gazelles. It’s a spectacular place. Seventy-five years ago, there were more cat species in Afghanistan than there were in all of Africa. Recognizing a need to protect natural resources is a way of protecting security.

Madagascar is a little of same thing. Ninety percent of the forest has been cut, and the animals that you find there, you find nowhere else in the world. When I started work there in 2003, we knew of 60 species of lemurs, 45 existing and 15 extinct. Now we know of more than 100 species of lemurs. To have that explosion of diversity, that many new species in that sort of time, is part of the patrimony of humankind. One of the observations we made … was within the intact forest of the lemurs we took blood samples from, none had malaria. Of those in fragmented forests, they had malaria.

Q: So with all these interests, what are your priorities as science advisor?

A: One of the priorities is recognizing we are dealing with a set of [interconnected] problems around the world. Some people think because development happens in faraway places, that the United States is safe, that we are bordered by Canada and Mexico. But in effect what happens in Rwanda affects us in Topeka, and we need to pay attention to these things. The nature of these global problems is that we should be looking for these sets of solutions. What we should be doing is capitalizing on ideas, research, information, and observations from every corner of the world and empowering people to look at this together. What I learned in all these experiences is there are really bright people everywhere. So how do we devote our resources and, in coalition with others, inspire solutions that might help us with problems at home, or stop the next pandemic, or find solutions to climate change?

Q: What do you see as important developments for global health research and development?

A: First, the Grand Challenge in Development at USAID is in global health—saving lives at birth. What’s exciting about that is not only the grants program, but that we’re looking to broaden the number of solutions. Duke University and ABC News are doing their own parallel grand challenge along that theme now as well. One of the points of the grand challenge is to encourage other people to address these challenges, and ABC News is doing a video competition to find solutions around child and maternal health, directed around college students. On campuses today, you see young doctors with engineering students, with business students, with anthropology students, or students from developing countries, and they are working to address global health challenges. How do we enhance these trends we’re seeing at universities? The students we are seeing on these campuses are much more inspired by global health and development than we have seen in the past.

The second most exciting thing for me is the work on microbicides, and putting the power of HIV protection in the hands of women who suffer from asymmetrical power relationships in developing countries. They may not feel free to make sure a man is using a condom. So an effective microbicide will protect their health and the health of their future children.