Frontlines Online Edition
Climate Change/Science & Technology
June/July 2011

Building True Capacity on a Shifting Delta

Each year, the National Science Foundation invests millions of dollars in research projects that support U.S. scientists and students to conduct research in countries where USAID works.

At the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta, the largest river delta in the world, three churning rivers pour over the fault lines of merging tectonic plates, leaving behind over 1 billion tons of sediment each year. Most of Bangladesh sits atop this rapidly evolving landscape. The delta and its geological phenomena provide a large and rich field site for geology research, the kind of research necessary to be able to design infrastructure, reduce risk, and optimize resources to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the delta’s over 200 million residents.

In 2010, lead scientist Michael Steckler of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and his colleagues—including several from other U.S. universities—received a five-year, multi-million dollar award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project to expand their research on geology and geohazards in Bangladesh.

The project will support multiple trips of U.S. scientists and students to Bangladesh, where, as part of their research, they will continue and expand their network of seismic stations and systems for recording data. Ideally such an endeavor would include substantial resources from Bangladeshi counterparts. However, despite years of experience working the region, the U.S. team began the project with very limited resources from their host country collaborators due primarily to lack of funding and inadequate training.

One of the local collaborators on the Bangladesh project is Syed Humayan Akhter, a geologist at Dhaka University. Though he is working with the NSF-funded team, his research still faces many resource limitations that are common among scientists in the developing world. For a country with significant earthquake potential, Bangladesh sorely lacks capacity and expertise in seismology. Although this NSF-funded project and other previous efforts have established seismic data collection stations throughout Bangladesh, faculties at regional universities merely host the equipment and are unable to make adequate use of it despite an interest in doing so.

Some of these deficiencies will be addressed by a small USAID-sponsored grant. With it comes the promise of greater collaboration between the U. S. scientists and their Bangladeshi counterparts. It is these types of collaborations that the U.S. Government would like to see repeated across the developing world.

Bridging Scientific Research and International Development

Each year the National Science Foundation invests millions of dollars in research projects that support U.S. scientists and students to conduct research in countries where USAID works. However, as a domestic federal science agency, the foundation’s capacity to support foreign scientists is limited. This makes it difficult for U.S. scientists to form sustained collaborations and to build capacity at partner institutions in the developing world.

Without support for developing country counterparts, research projects seldom reach their full potential. “Host-country researchers are left standing on the sideline unable to fully benefit from training and networking opportunities while U.S. scientific teams are in country,” says Mark Doyle, a fellow at USAID sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Projects like “Reducing Parasite Transmission across a Varied Landscape: Ecological and Social Contexts of a Malaria Intervention” and “Hydrology, Ecology, and Pastoral Societies in the Sahel: Ephemeral and Perennial Water Resources in a Dynamic Coupled System,” to name just a few recent NSF-funded endeavors, are consistent with USAID’s work. In fact, NSF currently has projects in nearly every country where the Agency is active.

“Even so, the potential for collaboration and mutual gain between the two agencies has been grossly underexploited,” says Doyle.

“The challenge,” says Doyle, “is to identify the sweet spots where NSF research and USAID mission priorities intersect so that USAID can support local scientists and fully leverage NSF’s investment to build research skills while at the same time meeting their development aims.”

Akhter was one of those sweet spots. In January 2011, USAID made his Dhaka University team a small reward as part of a package to scientists in USAID focus countries. The $30,000 grant leveraged a $4.5 million NSF award to the Columbia University team researching geohazards in Bangladesh. The money has already helped establish a new facility at Dhaka University serving as an in-country hub to store and process seismic data, and make the data available to other universities. The grant is also supporting training scientists from multiple universities in Bangladesh so that they will be able to use the seismic stations and the data hub for their own research and teaching purposes.

PEER Partnerships

Akhter’s grant was a curtain raiser of sorts. The award to the Dhaka geologist and five other small grants like it were a precursor for much more ambitious new programs to bridge NSF-funded researchers with their often resource-disadvantaged counterparts in the developing world.

The program, called Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research, or PEER, sits where scientific research meets international development, leveraging the scientific rigor and resources of the United States in order to pursue broader international development goals in line with U.S. Government foreign policy objectives.

“NSF-funded scientists and students who undertake research in developing countries bring significant resources to the table, including expertise, equipment, and a desire to foster longstanding relationships with their foreign counterparts.  For a relatively nominal USAID investment, developing country scientists and students gain access to some of the best scientists and educators in the U.S., all of whom have competed successfully for NSF funding,” says Alex Dehgan, director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology.

As with the pilot grant recipients, the PEER program will support competitively selected scientists and students in developing countries who are collaborating with U.S. scientists funded by NSF. It aims to engage host-country scientists and students on topics of importance to USAID and NSF such as food security, water, biodiversity, and climate change, and to build enduring relationships between researchers and institutions. It will provide opportunities to leverage NSF investments.

“It’s clear that the PEER program is a win-win for both agencies,” says DeAndra Beck, a program officer in NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering. “NSF benefits because the U.S. scientists and students that we fund are able to achieve better research outcomes when their developing country counterparts participate as true partners in the research collaboration. And, because of these enhanced partnerships, PEER complements NSF’s efforts to foster a globally engaged U.S. science and engineering community that has increased awareness of research questions that have relevance to the developing world.”

A Critical First Step

Just a few months into his grant, Akhter’s project now supports a geology center at Dhaka University used for training and data processing. In late May, he helped organize a five-day USAID-funded training workshop for members of the Bangladeshi geoscience community, with the U.S. collaborating scientists serving as facilitators. This serves as an important first step in building a network of geologists in Bangladesh to integrate seismic data from across the country using the new data processing center at Dhaka University as a hub. The workshop also sets the stage for continued substantive interactions between participants and the U.S. team throughout the remaining four years of the National Science Foundation award and beyond.

“Bangladesh experienced major and great earthquakes in recent and historic pasts. But the country was lacking proper earthquake monitoring stations with trained personnel,” said Akhter recently.

“The NSF supported research projects established the backbone of earthquake study in Bangladesh but had little scope to foster the persons interested in seismology.… The timely grant of the USAID fund was a blessing and it both inspired and encouraged us to work hard for the development of a strong seismological community in the country.”

For USAID’s Dehgan, this last part, the inspiration and encouragement among scientists, is what makes the PEER program truly revolutionary. “Not only do the PEER grants provide the hardware necessary to do science, but they provide the “software”—the connections and intellectual exchanges between scientists from the U.S. and scientists from developing countries, that last long beyond the end of the grant.”

For further information on PEER, contact Mark Doyle at

PEER Pilot Project

In late 2010, USAID invited proposals from selected scientists in developing countries who were currently working with researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on topics of general interest to USAID. In January 2011, USAID made six awards, ranging in size from $15,000 to $30,000. NSF provided several million dollars to U.S. scientists to conduct research related to these six awards, demonstrating substantial leverage for USAID's $150,000 investment.

The Six Pilot Projects

Fostering a Bangladeshi seismological community through training and facility development

University of Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Columbia University

  • Leverages a $4.5M NSF award
  • Helps establish a seismic data processing center at the University of Dhaka
  • Provides in-country training for 30 scientists at from multiple institutions in Bangladesh.

Climate change and integrated resource management around Agoufou natural pond

Université de Bamako (Mali) and South Dakota State

  • Leverages a $1.3M NSF award
  • Helps six students from Mali develop master's field projects in collaboration with the NSF project.
  • Provides funding for three Malian researchers to gain training in the U.S. lab.

Dynamic interactions among people, livestock, and Savanna ecosystems under climate change

University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Michigan State University

  • Leverages a $1.4M NSF award
  • Provides funding for a Tanzanian scientist to receive training in the U.S. lab.
  • Supports Tanzanian participation in a training with their Michigan State colleagues on climate modeling and data analysis.

Impact of land use on biodiversity dynamics

University of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Duke University

  • Leverages a $370K NSF award
  • Supports a Burkinabe PhD student for a year including a one-month visit to Duke University.
  • Provides re-usable field equipment to support Burkinabe researchers on the project.
  • Supports the travel of three Burkinabe scientists to Duke University for training and an international workshop on hydrology in seasonally dry ecosystems.

Building capacity for expanding understanding of freshwater fish biodiversity in Kenya

National Museums of Kenya (Kenya) and Tulane University

  • Leverages a $150K NSF award
  • Supports the participation of Kenyan scientists and students in field experiments with their U.S. counterparts.
  • Supports equipment to develop undergraduate curriculum in fish identification, taxonomy, and systematics.
  • Supports a study visit for the lead Kenyan scientist to Tulane University to receive training on maintaining fish collections and networking collection databases.

Strengthening research and teaching capacity of the Department of Wildlife Management

Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania) and Syracuse University

  • Leverages a $620K NSF award
  • Supports the research of a Tanzanian MSc student on the development of soil carbon offset projects in Tanzania in collaboration with a Tanzanian PhD student currently enrolled at Syracuse University.
  • Provides some classroom equipment for Sokoine University's Department of Wildlife Management, which currently has 630 students enrolled.