President Obama this morning made a very historic forty-three minute speech to the august body of the National Academies of Science (NAS). This elite assemblage has not had the attention of an American President in such early days of a new political administration since President Kennedy pledged to fund space missions to the moon. He says that a half-century ago was the "high water mark" as far as funding science research is concerned and his intention is to restore science to its "rightful place" in America.
President Obama received warm welcome and applause for the symbolic gesture of his presence. In addition, the substantial recommendations in his speech are sweeping, powerful and exciting. What is exciting is that at the same time, the administration is already far more effective than previous ones at slicing through opposition to popular proposals. It could prove the beginning of a new chapter in the history of innovations in all areas of science, engineering, and medicine.
President Obama wants to promote the pre-eminent status of American as a world leader in scientific research. He plans to do so through his a) appointments b)executive orders and c) initiatives, such as the following:
1) to promote research and experimentation. A tax credit made permanent should create jobs by encouraging companies to plan for the long term.
2) to produce, use and save energy: clean energy is of such importance to the administration that the President has entrusted the Department of Energy to a physicist. He announced the creation of the "Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E...based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa."
3)to computerize medical records: to improve healthcare in this country. He also advocates patient control over records. He admits that medical advances come from scientific breakthroughs, such as antibiotics, vaccines and pills. He is doubling the budget for cancer research.
4) to announce the appointment of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, known as PCAST to create for professional scientists"national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation". It will be co-chaired by John Holdren, the President's top science advisor; Eric Lander, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate.
5)to renew commitment to math and science education. The President will support inventive approaches and educational innovations. He wants to "create systems that retain and reward effective teachers, and let’s create new pathways for experienced professionals to enter the classroom." He also is committed to creating by 2020, "the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we’ve provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable....[the] budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships."
To summarize, these five Presidential initiatives create the word RECIPE:
1) Research, 2)energy, 3)computerize, 4)PCAST, 5)education.
The President is impressively backing up his words with financial commitments...
"We double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, a primary source of funding for academic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supports a wide range of pursuits — from improving health information technology to measuring carbon pollution, from testing “smart grid” designs to developing advanced manufacturing processes. And my budget doubles funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science..."
President Obama also acknowledges that the National Academies of Science predate the Civil War, address the "restless curiosity" and "boundless hope" that characterizes and motivates professional scientists, whom he refreshingly calls "leaders of change".
The President also says our capacity for world scientific leadership rests on our medical and scientific community. He admits this leadership is now more essential than ever before.
"Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of our gross domestic product [GDP] has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century. Time and again we’ve allowed the research and experimentation tax credit, which helps businesses grow and innovate, to lapse."
After his lament, "our schools continue to trail", the President notes"the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether or a student will succeed or fail in these subjects."
He also cites products created through scientific breakthroughs, such as solar cells, learning software, GPS systems, prosthetics and CAT scans.
He wants scientific research to determine policy, rather than the opposite, as has been the case in recent years.
President Obama summed up his speech:
"As President Kennedy said when he addressed the National Academy of Sciences more than 45 years ago:
“The challenge, in short, may be our salvation.”"
That challenge is the livelihood of many of his listeners. Let's hope kids listen to President Obama's very inspirational speech (I dream). I love these initiatives. Slightly better it would have been had his speech come earlier than his 98th day in office. He professed interest in science funding throughout his campaign, I think. The fact that he did this speech at all is rare among American Presidents. There are some in business saying these ideas have to meet the realities. President Obama has very high approval ratings among scientists.
Which President in your view has been most interested in science so far? Please leave your comments.
For a radio text, see the NAS website. There is a text of the President's speech in The White House website linked here.