Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala sees “a central role for science” in addressing the challenges of our future – as long as innovation is supported by social science and sound public policy.
It’s an intersection that Nigeria’s former finance minister knows well. Okonjo-Iweala, one of the Times magazine’s most influential people of 2021, has worked at the intersection of public policy and science throughout his career.
Currently the first female and first African Director General of the World Trade Organization, she previously served as Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, where she was instrumental in promoting access to malaria vaccines and Ebola.
While delivering a speech at the OneMIT launch event on May 27, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the disruption COVID-19 had caused to students.
“A pandemic is not something I had to deal with as a student. But my studies were also interrupted when I was young by the civil war in Nigeria,” said Okonjo-Iweala, MCP ’78, PhD ’81.
“I didn’t go to school for three years, from age 12 to 15, as my family ran from place to place in Biafra to escape bombs and shelling. The images we see of the war in Ukraine today remind me of the suffering I witnessed and endured back then,” she said.
After acknowledging the shock of the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and honoring the contributions of outgoing MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Okonjo-Iweala explained how the combination of science, science social and public policies can stimulate innovation. .
Here are three takeaways from his speech:
Science needs to be scaled. The pandemic, hunger and soaring food prices, and climate change are pressing concerns. “A common thread that runs through many of these challenges is the central role of science. We need technological innovation to get us out of the holes we find ourselves in. At the same time, for the kind of problems that we face, new inventions and new ways of doing things will have an impact mainly insofar as they are re-scaled according to income splits and geography “, she said.
Access counts. “We don’t just need vaccines. We need gunshots across the world to be safe. We need new renewable technologies disseminated not only in rich countries to fight climate change, but also in poor countries. To fight hunger, we need new agricultural technologies adapted to local conditions and culture, she said.
“In other words, we need innovation. But we also need access, equity, dissemination – we need to get the science right, and we also need to put in place the national and international policy frameworks, the incentive structures and the public and private investments” , she said.
The response to COVID-19, she said, has not prioritized the world’s most vulnerable populations and has not prioritized all frontline workers in all countries.
“Instead, much of 2021 saw what WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus described as ‘a handful of wealthy countries gobbling up the expected supply as manufacturers sold off to the highest bidder, while that the rest of the world was rushing for leftovers,'” she said.
Science only works when it works for everyone.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she said. “While the global supply of vaccines has now increased, the delay in getting these vaccines to poor countries has allowed apathy and vaccine hesitancy to take hold, leading to a situation where, on the back of weak health systems, only 17% of Africans and 13% of people in low-income countries have been fully immunized, compared to 75% of people in high-income countries.”
Fairness is essential. Despite the progress, Okonjo-Iweala noted that we still have to reduce emissions and need more green technologies to fight climate change.
“For all the Teslas we might see around [the MIT campus]only 4.5% of vehicles in the United States are electric,” she said.
Okonjo-Iweala hailed the MIT Energy Initiative, D-Lab and Future Energy Systems Center for their work on low-carbon transition, hydrogen production, off-grid energy supply and transportation. zero-carbon goods, but said international cooperation is key to making these transformative innovations.
The rich world is failing to deliver on its $100 billion Paris Accord pledge to help poor countries take advantage of new and renewable technologies, she said. “It was these kinds of public policy failures, these shortcomings in harnessing science and innovation for the greater public good, that drew me to the career I pursued in international development. “, said Okonjo-Iweala. As such, she urged graduates to “connect the dots in disconnected approaches to problem solving.”
“The world needs your intelligence, your skills, your adaptability, and the excellent training you received here at MIT,” she said. “The world needs you for innovation, for policy-making, for connecting the dots, so that implementation can actually happen.”
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