US global health research funding falls short of innovation rhetoric — NGOs

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah examines an X-ray film at a small medical practice in Yangon, Myanmar. Advocates argue that U.S. funding for global health technologies and products is insufficient. Photo by: Richard Nyberg / USAID / CC BY-NC

Despite the Obama administration's emphasis on science, technology, and innovation for international development, United States funding for global health research and development is not what it could or should be, according to an advocacy coalition of 30 global health nongovernmental organizations.

On Thursday, the Global Health Technology Coalition will make its case on Capitol Hill in a Senate briefing aimed at convincing lawmakers that American global leadership demands funding for U.S. global health technologies and products — including low-cost vaccines, drugs, diagnostics and devices that can combat diseases endemic to the developing world.

The combined effects of across-the-board sequestration spending cuts and the U.S. government shutdown last year — as well a presidential budget request that cuts global health funding 4.6 percent for fiscal year 2015 — have some advocates worried U.S. leadership on global health research and development could be waning.

In particular, part of the global health community believes that Congress has lost its appetite for development-related research and development spending — even if U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah and other senior administration officials have made lofty statements about science, technology, innovation, and partnership paving the way for a “new model of development.”

“There's no guarantee the tools we have today are going to help us meet the needs of tomorrow,” Kaitlin Christenson, GHTC coalition leader, told Devex.

Walk the talk on R&D funding — GHTC

USAID's not-yet-launched Global Development Lab has been touted as a hub for the kind of transformational technologies some global health advocates want to see the government support.

The new initiative has “great potential,” and invests in building the agency's own internal capacity for science and technology. At the same time, USAID needs to continue to invest in the kinds of R&D that needs to happen to bring new products into the development marketplace, Christenson said.

USAID's global health R&D funding typically comes from the agency's global health budget lines, which could — at least in the short term — be due for some downsizing.

The president’s budget justification suggests that only $5 million of the requested $146 million required to build the Global Development Lab will fund global health-specific innovations and programs.

Immediate objectives

Christenson hopes Thursday's hearing — together with the new report “Innovation for a Changing World: the Role of US Leadership in Global Health R&D” prepared by GHTC  — will help achieve at least three goals:

1. Push Congress on a long-term budget solution that protects global health research and development and directs U.S. agencies to “protect and sustain” the commitments that have been made. Christenson lauded the “tremendous commitments” made under Shah's USAID leadership, but cautioned those commitments could be wiped clean by a new administration less committed to the science and technology agenda.

2. Spark action on the 21st Century Global Health Technology Act, a bill that would codify USAID's role in supporting and developing technologies to achieve global health impacts through the creation of a new “Health Technologies” program. The bill aims to support the agency's ability to “assess local health conditions, then partner with public and private stakeholders ... and contribute to the strengthening of health systems.”

3. Include a prominent role for global health science and technology research — especially a commitment to build the capacity in developing countries to conduct their own research and develop their own locally-appropriate products, treatments and technologies — in the post-2015 development agenda.

According to the GHTC report, changes in the national political and economic environment “have eroded the U.S. government's longstanding commitment to health R&D.” The coalition will recognize on Thursday the difficult budget environment congressional appropriators face and argue that health R&D can pave the way for long-term cost savings on global health programs, while also representing a vital component of the “American character” through the U.S. government’s global engagement.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.