President Obama's Moment, Bachmann Sideways


Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama focused attention on preparing the United States to thrive against global competition.

President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech was broad, thematic and optimistic as expected. Each listener comes to such a speech with their own perspective and background. As a scientist, I was particularly encouraged to hear a theme of the importance of education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to drive innovation, a call for more respect for teachers as "nation builders" and, perhaps most poignant - the President's recognition that all challenges offer opportunities:

This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

Imagine a world in which this is true:

We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

A dream or a possibility?

The importance of "reinventing ourselves" highlighted in the President's speech is particularly relevant during a fiscal crisis in which the large majority of Americans need to do more with less. Success in such times requires innovation and creativity, often necessitating retraining.

In an article published last June, I wrote about the BP oil spill as a potential opportunity for "Sputnik II":

An eternal optimist, my sincerest hope is that this disaster will become a turning point for how we approach environmental preservation and restoration, and could become "Sputnik II", as suggested recently by Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for the US Senate.

The launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I in the Fall of 1957 is widely recognized as a watershed moment for science and mathematics education in the U.S. The federal government acted quickly to provide vast resources to support young students with the National Defense Education Act in 1958 backed by more than $7 billion in today's dollars.

Unfortunately, the leadership role of the US in science and mathematics education at the primary and secondary level (Kindergarten through 12th grade) has consistently declined over the past 30 years, referred to as a "sad state" by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of Science. In 2006, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st of out 30 developed countries in an assessment of understanding of science.

I hope that President Obama's recognition of a "Sputnik II" moment will result in more support for STEM education to support our "nation builders" - educators at all levels.

The response by the Tea Party, ostensibly an alternative perspective from the GOP, by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (MN-6) made no mention for the need for innovation. The only mention of the need to excel was:

We believe in lower taxes, a limited view of government and the exceptionalism of America. And I believe America is the indispensible nation.

{You can read the full text here.}

Perhaps more perplexing was that instead of speaking directly to the CNN camera, Ms. Bachmann was facing the webcam for a livestream to the Tea Party Express. Could this be due to the challenge of trying to speak to too many audiences at once, or is it a metaphor for talking sideways?

While the support of free markets - laissez faire economics - and dependence upon the private sector to drive innovation is standard fare for the GOP, I wonder how we can become "exceptional" faced with the current challenge of a fiscal crisis? Do we not continue to support old technologies such as petroleum fuels that benefit the oil industry, instead of increasing incentives for research and development of clean energy technologies? As President Obama said last night:

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate
the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.


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You have to wonder about the applause we heard from both sides of the aisle - applause in favor of Obama's bipartisan cheer-leading from people who will stick a knife in the president's back first chance they get. Is Washington going to change? Don't hold your breath!