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Soothing Speech on Science

April 28, 2009

President Obama on Monday set a goal of devoting more than 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product to research and development -- a new goal in a speech that otherwise served primarily to sum up various strands of his new administration's science and research agenda. The speech, delivered at the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting, in Washington, would make for easy bedtime reading for many scientists, and for sweet dreams, too.

"At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree," Obama said Monday. "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before."

“In this case, I think the whole was bigger than the sum of the individual parts,” said Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “I really think that what was important about this talk, what was really significant, is the fact that he recognizes how critical science, innovation, technology, and education are to, not just to our economic recovery but to the long-term future of the country. ... He’s making it clear that science and education are central to his vision.”

In addition to introducing the 3 percent figure -- which would be met with both public and private investment and would, Obama said, “exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race” [in 1964] -- Obama reiterated a number of goals in his speech, including doubling, over 10 years, the budget of the National Science Foundation. (“It’s nice to hear it again; he can say it as often as he wants!” Teich said.) Obama cited a number of priorities under his proposed budget, including making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent, tripling the number of NSF graduate research fellowships, and adding $6 billion to the National Institutes of Health's pot for cancer research.

Obama also spoke of ensuring scientific integrity (and warned against politicization of research); of improving math and science education; and of scientists’ own responsibilities in this latter endeavor. “So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. I want to encourage you to participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it's science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent -- to be makers of things, not just consumers of things,” Obama said.

“He kind of put it all together, in a way,” said Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities. “He has clearly spoken about these issues quite a bit as a candidate, and as president, but this speech really put it all together in a qualitatively new way, I’d say.”

The White House also on Monday announced the full membership of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

 

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