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Illustrated portrait of Ticora Jones Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Ticora Jones has supercharged global development research

Jones expanded the United States’ global development reach. Now she’s fighting for a healthier climate.

Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

For over a decade, Ticora Jones helped lead the US effort to solve some of the most challenging global development problems.

A chemist by training, Jones served as the chief scientist for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) until earlier this year, shaping its science policy and expanding its collaboration with other US government agencies. Much of her tenure at USAID, however, focused on enhancing research at the university level through the agency’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), which she helped to establish. There are six US universities in the network, and each runs a development laboratory on campus and collaborates with researchers, development professionals, entrepreneurs, and governments in dozens of countries.

The network’s US-based labs work on a wide range of issues, such as evaluating aid investment, improving health care technology and water safety, and strengthening food security — for example, by helping farmers expand markets for particular crops.

The final university in the network is unique: Makerere University, in Uganda’s capital Kampala, is home to the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN), a USAID-backed research hub made up of 20 African university partners. RAN’s partner schools are developing a number of exciting innovations through the program, including a cooling tent for aid workers, more affordable breast cancer screening technology, and an app to quickly detect counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs.

“Universities are unique places where individuals are encouraged and have the opportunity to explore, evolve, and iterate,” Jones said in an interview with the University of California Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab. “This drive, coupled with a strong need from NGOs, development organizations, and implementers to have impact, has the potential for creating many pathways to sustainable socio-economic progress.”

While at USAID, Jones also directed the agency’s Center for Development Research, and later, its Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub. There, Jones expanded her work beyond universities through a number of programs. One, for instance, funds global development researchers outside the US who collaborate with US-based researchers. In just over a decade, the program has given out more than $100 million to hundreds of projects in nearly 60 countries. Last year, Jones helped USAID renew a memorandum of understanding with NASA to monitor issues such as deforestation and drought from space.

Global development work is dizzyingly complex, as it brings together countless practitioners — people from government, nonprofits, businesses, frontline communities, and more — across continents and time zones. Given the stakes of global development in tackling poverty, climate change, and public health challenges, work from experts like Jones to fund and connect researchers is critical.

Earlier this year, Jones left USAID to serve as chief science officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the world’s largest environmental nonprofits. There, she’ll continue her life’s work of using evidence-based research to inform policy for a cleaner and safer world.

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