The Scientific Activist

Today, President Barack Obama addressed the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), making him only the fourth president in modern times to do so (the other three were John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush). He touched on a variety of areas, but the major theme was a renewed commitment to science.

Specifically, Obama pledged that under his leadership, the US will devote more than three percent of GDP to research and development. In his words, this will be the “largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American History,” even exceeding the investment made during the space race.

Obama also reiterated his March 9th pledge to end political interference in science in the federal government, emphasizing that “our values as a nation are rooted in free inquiry.

Overall, it was a reasonably impressive speech that’s worth listening to (in addition to there being a lot to like about it from the perspective of a scientist). So, if you missed it this morning, I’d encourage you to give it a listen when you have a chance. There was a live audio feed from NAS and an audio/video feed from The Washington Post during the event, but it looks like those are no longer available. However, I believe that NAS should be posting the video on its site shortly. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out it’s available (there or elsewhere). In the meantime, you can read the full text of his remarks at Political Intelligence. Update: The National Academies site now has an mp3 audio recording of the speech available, and The National Academies Press site has both audio and video.


Update: Now that I have had a chance to look back through the transcript of the speech, I’ll pull out a few passages of particular interest.

On the history of the NAS and the importance of inquiry even during hard times:

A few months after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, before Gettysburg would be won and Richmond would fall, before the fate of the Union would be at all certain, President Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences.

Lincoln refused to accept that our nation’s sole purpose was merely to survive. He created this academy, founded the land grant colleges, and began the work of the transcontinental railroad, believing that we must add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery… of new and useful things.”

This is America’s story. Even in the hardest times, and against the toughest odds, we have never given in to pessimism; we have never surrendered our fates to chance; we have endured; we have worked hard; we have sought out new frontiers.

On swine flu:

We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States. This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm. The Department of Health and Human Services has declared a Public Health Emergency as a precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively. I’m getting regular updates on the situation from the responsible agencies, and the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Centers for Disease Control will be offering regular updates to the American people so that they know what steps are being taken and what steps they may need to take. But one thing is clear – our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind.

On a renewed commitment to science:

A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation; to invest in education, in research, in engineering; to set a goal of reaching space and engaging every citizen in that historic mission. That was the high water mark of America’s investment in research and development. Since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income – our GDP. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation’s great discoveries.

I believe it is not in our American character to follow – but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.

Just think what this will allow us to accomplish: solar cells as cheap as paint, and green buildings that produce all of the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again; an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us. We can do this.

The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another fifty years. That is how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

On the importance of basic research:

No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals; new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and drought.

It was basic research in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago.

Announcing funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E):

And today, I am also announcing that for the first time, we are funding an initiative – recommended by this organization – called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E.

This is based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, which was created during the Eisenhower administration in response to Sputnik. It has been charged throughout its history with conducting high-risk, high-reward research. The precursor to the internet, known as ARPANET, stealth technology, and the Global Positioning System all owe a debt to the work of DARPA.

ARPA-E seeks to do this same kind of high-risk, high-reward research. My administration will also pursue comprehensive legislation to place a market-based cap on carbon emissions. We will make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America. And I am confident that we will find a wellspring of creativity just waiting to be tapped by researchers in this room and entrepreneurs across our country.

The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy. America can and must be that nation.

On the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

And because of recent progress – not just in biology, genetics and medicine, but also in physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering – we have the potential to make enormous progress against diseases in the coming decades. That is why my Administration is committed to increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health, including $6 billion to support cancer research, part of a sustained, multi-year plan to double cancer research in our country.

On eliminating political interference in science:

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation – and our values as a nation – are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.

That is why I have charged the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information. I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions – and not the other way around.

Announcing the appointment of the President’s Council of Advisors (PCAST):

We also need to engage the scientific community directly in the work of public policy. That is why, today, I am announcing the appointment of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, known as PCAST, with which I plan to work closely.

This council represents leaders from many scientific disciplines who will bring a diversity of experiences and views. I will charge PCAST with advising me about national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation. It will be co-chaired by John Holdren, my 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.

On higher education:

But our work does not end with a high school diploma. For decades, we led the world in educational attainment, and as a consequence we led the world in economic growth. The G.I. Bill, for example, helped send a generation to college. But in this new economy, we’ve come to trail other nations in graduation rates, in educational achievement, and in the production of scientists and engineers.

That’s why my administration has set a goal that will greatly enhance our ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs of the 21st century – and to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. In the next decade – by 2020 – America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we’ve provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable.

My budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago. In the decades since, it’s remained largely the same size – even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path.

On the role of science in society:

At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it. Some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long held views. Science cannot answer every question; indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics, our values, our principles, or our faith, but science can inform those things, and help put these values, these moral sentiments, that faith, to work – to feed a child, to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this earth.

We are reminded that with each new discovery and the new power it brings, comes new responsibility; that the fragility and the sheer specialness of life requires us to move past our differences, to address our common problems, to endure and continue humanity’s strivings for a better world.

Comments

  1. #1 James F
    April 27, 2009

    *applause*

  2. #2 Paul Browne
    April 27, 2009

    An excellent speech!

    Another segment that I was struck by was:

    “The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.

    That’s why the private sector under-invests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.”

    President Obama gets it:-)

  3. #3 ChrisZ
    April 27, 2009

    The turn around from the Bush administration seems almost unreal. Secretary Clinton’s speech on global warming today was pretty good as well.

  4. #4 houston chiropractor
    March 15, 2011

    So in 2009 he vows to N.A.S.A. that he is dedicated to them. Then in 2010 he whacks them. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I believe that is lying. What is the point of funding scholarships for science, but now you eliminate those jobs?

  5. #5 houston chiropractor
    March 15, 2011

    So in 2009 he vows to N.A.S.A. that he is dedicated to them. Then in 2010 he whacks them. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I believe that is lying. What is the point of funding scholarships for science, but now you eliminate those jobs?