Obama at the Academy, V : Hungry Audience, Meaty Speech

Eli Kintisch
2009-04-27 14:23
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The warm reception at the National Academy of Sciences was also a coming-out party for President Barack Obama, cementing his reputation as a virtual rock star among U.S. scientists. His substantial but not particularly newsy remarks were probably a little less than the Gospel from on high, but the crowd lapped it up. All the clamor—a crowd of nearly 1000, scientists arriving at 6 a.m. for the 9 a.m. speech and lining the halls of the academy building down in Foggy Bottom, multiple ovations—made it clear that the science establishment sees Obama as the spokesperson-in-chief for its interests, whether that's deserved or not.

The big question was whether Obama would say anything substantial on swine flu. But in his first remarks on the health emergency, he urged everyone to remain calm and assured the nation that his Administration was on top of the crisis.

The 11-page speech was dotted with all manner of science history. He recalled President Abraham Lincoln's establishment of the academy in 1863 amid the Civil War (quoting the great president calling to add: "and I quote, 'the fuel of interest to the fire of genius to the discovery ... of new and useful things.' ") He cited a comment that Albert Einstein supposedly made after attending the academy's annual meeting in 1921 and listening to a series of boring speeches ("I have just got a new theory of eternity.") And he suggested a "controlled experiment" to determine whether his science adviser, John Holdren, or NAS President Ralph Cicerone, both members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's class of 1965, would "age faster."

But Obama also delivered some policy meat to the hungry crowd. The biggest announcement was probably a goal that's as ambiguous as it is ambitious: a call for the United States to spend 3% or more of its gross domestic product on research and development. In 2007, the United States spent about $368 billion on R&D, which is about 2.7% of GDP. That means the United States would have to spend roughly $60 billion more per year on research and development to reach Obama's goal, assuming the U.S. economy doesn't grow—and boost the denominator.

It remains to be seen how the federal government might effectively encourage businesses to do more research. "It's going to be hard to reach because the government represents only one-third of the spending on R&D," said Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at AAAS, which publishes this blog.

"I won't say whether we're going to be able to reach it by anytime within the foreseeable future," Obama said. The highest fraction that the United States has achieved is 2.88%. It was in 1964 at the height of the Apollo program, a level of excitement that Obama repeatedly said he wants to emulate now. "We can do this," he said again and again. Obama didn't mention a timeframe for the goal.

Obama's other promises were unsurprising but pleasing to the capacity crowd. His promise to restore scientific integrity to government—"Under my Administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over"—got the longest and loudest applause, though there were no standing ovations and Obama didn't announce anything new in these areas.

He pledged support for a variety of science and math education initiatives. One already in the 2010 budget request from the Department of Education would allow states to include math and science in their proposals for a share of a $5 billion "Race to the Top" to foster innovative programs. A new joint initiative by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, dubbed RE-ENERGYSE, is intended to inspire "tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and entrepreneurship related to clean energy."

As expected, he announced that as part of the 2010 budget he would fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which supports risky research and energy, though he didn't say how much he was requesting. He repeated a campaign promise to continue a doubling of the budgets of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation and to double spending on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health.

In what amounts to legitimate but unsurprising news, Obama announced the appointment of the rest of the members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, chaired by Holdren, Harold Varmus, and Eric Lander. The list of distinguished scientists include climate specialists such as Nobelist Mario Molina, Rosina Bierbaum, and Daniel Schrag, hedge fund tycoon and computer scientist David Shaw, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Many were critics of President George W. Bush or members of the Obama transition team.

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