President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

The White House

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address.

A Supporting Role for Science in Obama's State of the Union Address

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

What will he say about science? That’s the question hardcore science policy watchers ask every year about the president’s annual State of the Union address.

Chief executives often use the speech to roll out new policy proposals or signal their priorities for the coming year.  President Barack Obama declined to do the former in last night’s 65-minute speech, but he served up plenty of the latter. Specifically, he:

  • Signaled the administration’s continued support for eliminating the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, which he says are hurting government investments in basic science.

  • Pledged to use executive branch authority, and not to wait for Congress to act, to harness applied research in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He also wants to expand natural gas production as part of a broad push for energy independence.

  • Asked Congress to support more private-public research partnerships aimed at improving the nation’s competitiveness in manufacturing.

And while research advocates say they liked what they heard, most want Washington to do more. On climate change, for instance, Eileen Claussen, president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia, said in a statement that “the president is right to move forward with the regulatory tools at his disposal,” because “there’s no prospect of Congress taking serious action anytime soon.”

Matthew Stepp, an analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), another Washington-area think tank, was supportive but unsatisfied by Obama’s energy plan, especially its emphasis on using natural gas as a “bridge” to cleaner future energy supplies. “Natural gas, while marginally cleaner than coal, is no substitute for a transition to renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, biofuels, and electric vehicles,” according to Stepp. “The energy innovation challenges underpinning climate change require far more attention than these modest carbon reduction efforts.”

Here are some highlights of research-related issues that Obama discussed, taken from a White House transcript of the speech:

Science spending

“China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines, and neither should we,” Obama warned in a paragraph that touched on the role of the federal government in supporting basic science. “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.  This is an edge America cannot surrender.  Federally funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones.  And that’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.”

Research advocates were pleased with that last line, which restated the White House’s opposition to spending restrictions imposed by sequestration, a budget mechanism designed to help reduce government deficits over the next decade. However, sticklers may want to point out that Congress has already restored most of the 2013 cuts, which amounted to 5% at most science agencies, as part of the 2014 spending bill that it passed 2 weeks ago. But most lobbyists think that Obama was also urging Congress to remove the threat of mandatory cuts in the coming years and replace it with what the administration calls a balanced package of increased revenues and reduced spending, including curbs on entitlements. 

Energy

Obama spent some 4 minutes discussing energy policy, according to a tally in The Washington Post, starting with an emphasis on producing and using more natural gas.

“Now, one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy,” Obama began. “The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today, America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.”

“One of the reasons why is natural gas -- if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.  Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas.  I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built and put folks to work, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

As part of the natural gas push, the White House is drafting new rules for oil and gas drilling on public lands and promoting investments in what administration officials call “safe and responsible natural gas production.” It is also promoting tax incentives to build infrastructure that would allow drivers to replace the petroleum in their gas tanks with natural gas and other fuels. And the president’s Climate Action Plan, released last summer, calls for developing strategies to reduce emissions of methane associated with natural gas production. Many climate scientists see increased emissions of methane, a potent warming gas, as a highly problematic side effect of the recent gas boom.

The president also made a nod to solar power, noting that: “Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job cannot be outsourced.  Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

Finally, he issued a call for conservation: “[E]ven as we’ve increased energy production, we’ve partnered with businesses, builders, and local communities to reduce the energy we consume.  When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars.  In the coming months, I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.

Specifically, according to White House briefing documents, Obama “will propose new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks to run on natural gas or other alternative fuels and the infrastructure needed to run them.”

Climate change

Obama linked his energy proposals directly to climate change, which he called “a fact.” And his oratory was interrupted several times with applause—albeit almost entirely from Democratic members of Congress.

He asserted that “our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet.  Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.  But we have to act with more urgency -- because a changing climate is already harming Western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.  That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air. ”

“The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled.   Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did. ”

The proposed power plant rules—for new and existing plants—are controversial, and House of Representatives Republican leaders have vowed to block them. His claim that the United States has reduced its “total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth” is sure to spark debate. Although true by some measures, such as counting total tons of carbon avoided, it is sure to be challenged by climate advocates who say the United States could be doing much more to reduce its emissions per capita or per unit of economic growth.

And although U.S. emissions did decline in recent years, Claussen noted in her statement that “U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are again on the rise, and much stronger efforts are needed to rein them in and achieve steep long-term reductions.” Still, she’s generally supportive of the White House’s approach: “The president has a credible and comprehensive plan to cut emissions, expand clean energy, and strengthen resilience to climate impacts. Now is the time to put it into action.”

Much of Obama’s electoral base was also likely pleased by his suggestion that spending on infrastructure such as roads and power grids be linked to efforts to make communities more resilient to changes wrought by climate change, such as rising seas or shifting weather patterns. “Climate change is testing these systems every day,” said David Foster of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental, labor, and industry groups, in a statement. “[T]he best insurance policy against these threats is to face the challenges of climate change and our nation's failing infrastructure simultaneously.” The push would also create jobs, he noted.

Advanced manufacturing

Obama made a pitch to expand a nascent system of advanced manufacturing hubs that link universities to industry to develop new technologies. “We also have the chance, right now, to beat other countries in the race for the next wave of high-tech manufacturing jobs,” he said.

“My administration has launched two hubs for high-tech manufacturing in Raleigh, North Carolina and Youngstown, Ohio, where we’ve connected businesses to research universities that can help America lead the world in advanced technologies.  Tonight, I’m announcing we’ll launch six more this year.  Bipartisan bills in both houses could double the number of these hubs and the jobs they create.  So get those bills to my desk; put more Americans back to work.”

In a briefing document, White House officials wrote that Obama will use his executive authority to launch four new manufacturing innovation institutes this year, a co-investment by the private sector and Federal agencies, led by the Departments of Defense and Energy. These new institutes will build on the success of the four that the President has already announced – including the pilot institute in Youngstown, Ohio [created in 2012] and the most recent institute launched in Raleigh, N.C. By the end of 2014, the President will have made it to the halfway point on his initial goal of 15 institutes, without Congress.”

ITIF’s president, Robert Atkinson, says the think tank deserved credit for developing the idea. The effort “offers a tremendous opportunity to promote industry-university partnerships, improve technology transfer and promote manufacturing innovation nationally,” he said in a statement. He’d also like to see “Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation that would create a fully-funded, nation-wide … system.”

Patents

Obama touched briefly on Congress’s current efforts to pass legislation that would make it harder for some companies—known as patent trolls—to try to extract payments from patent holders by filing what experts say are often tenuous claims of infringement. The strategy has been fueled by quirks in current patent law, which lawmakers are now trying to change.

Obama expressed general support for the idea. “There are entire industries to be built based on vaccines that stay ahead of drug-resistant bacteria, or paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel,” Obama said. “And let’s pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.”

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