Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala sees “a central role for science” in meeting the challenges of our future — so long as innovation is backed by social science and sound public policy.
It’s an intersection the former finance minister of Nigeria is familiar with. Okonjo-Iweala, one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2021, has worked at the crossroads of public policy and science throughout her career.
Currently the first female and the 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 and Ebola vaccines.
In delivering an address at the OneMIT Commencement Ceremony 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 education was also interrupted when I was young by the civil war in Nigeria,” said Okonjo-Iweala, MCP ‘78, PhD ’81.
“I did not go to school for three years from the ages of 12 to 15, as my family ran from place to place in Biafra to escape the bombs and the shelling. The images we see from the war in Ukraine today remind me of the suffering I witnessed and endured then,” she said.
After acknowledging the shock of the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and honoring the contributions of retiring MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Okonjo-Iweala discussed how the combination of science, social science, and public policy can drive innovation.
Here are three takeaways from her talk:
Science must be scaled up. The pandemic, hunger and soaring food costs, and climate change are pressing concerns. “A common thread running through many of these challenges is the central role for science. We need technological innovation to get us out of the holes we’re in. At the same time, for the kinds of problems we’re dealing with, new inventions and new ways of doing things will have an impact mainly to the extent they’re scaled up across dividing lines of income and geography,” she said.
Access matters. “We don’t just need vaccines. We need shots in arms across the world to be safe. We need new renewable technologies diffused not just in rich countries to fight climate change but also in poor ones.” To fight hunger, we need new agricultural technologies built to local conditions and culture, she said.
“In other words, we need innovation. But we also need access, equity, diffusion — we need to get the science right, and we need to get the domestic and international policy frameworks, the incentive structures, and the public and private investments right too,” she said.
The response to COVID-19, she said, did not prioritize the most vulnerable populations in the world, and did not prioritize all frontline workers in all countries.
“Instead, much of 2021 saw what WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus described as ‘a handful of rich countries gobbling up the anticipated supply as manufacturers sold to the highest bidder, while the rest of the world scrambled for scraps,’” she said.
Science only works when it works for everyone.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she said. “While global vaccine supplies have now increased, the lag in getting this to poor countries allowed apathy and vaccine hesitancy to set in, leading to a situation where on the back of weak health systems, only 17% of people in Africa and 13% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared with 75% of people in high-income countries.”
Equity is essential. Despite progress, Okonjo-Iweala noted that we still need to cut emissions and we require more green technologies in order to address climate change.
“For all the Teslas we might see around [the MIT campus], only 4.5% of vehicles in the U.S. 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 delivery, and zero-carbon freight transportation, but said international cooperation is key in making such innovations transformative.
The affluent world isn’t fulfilling its $100 billion Paris Accords pledge to help poor countries take advantage of new and renewable technologies, she said.
“It is these kinds of public policy failures, these lapses in harnessing science and innovation for the greater public good, that drew me to the career that I’ve pursued in international development,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
As such, she urged graduates to “connect the dots in disconnected approaches to problem-solving.”
“The world needs your smarts, your skills, your adaptability, and the great training you have received here at MIT,” she said. “The world needs you for innovation, for policy-making, for connecting the dots, so implementation can actually happen.”