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President Highlights Innovation and Education in His State of the Union

Richard M. Jones
Number 8 - January 27, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Members of Congress gave President Obama a standing ovation when he declared during his State of the Union that “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.”  The President highlighted the importance of innovation and education as keys to America’s future competitiveness.  He also provided a strong indication about his likely request for S&T and education in his FY 2012 budget request, cautioning Congress against “cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education.”

The following are selections from the President’s address to Congress on Tuesday night.  Among those viewing the address from the First Lady’s Box in the gallery were four top science students from Arizona, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

At the outset of his address, Obama described international competition:

“Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.  They’re investing in research and new technologies.  Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.”

 Later, the President spoke of the importance of innovation, the vital role federal support for basic research plays in fostering this innovation, and his FY 2012 budget request.

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.  None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from.  Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution.  What we can do - what America does better than anyone else - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.  We’re the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook.  In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives.  It is how we make our living.
 
“Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.  But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need.  That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet.  That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.  Just think of all the good jobs - from manufacturing to retail - that have come from these breakthroughs.
 
 “Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
 
 “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology - an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

This is the second instance that the President has spoken of “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” In a speech last December to a community college in North Carolina, the President described the importance of research and development to America’s economic future. 
 
The President then outlined his views on energy policy, cited research performed at the California Institute of Technology and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and his goals for the utilization of electric cars and clean energy sources.
“That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves.  And to spur on more success stories . . .  we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money.  We’re issuing a challenge.  We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.
 
“At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.  At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities.  With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
 
“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 -- 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.
 
“Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.  So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal:  By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.
 
“Some folks want wind and solar.  Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.  To meet this goal, we will need them all -- and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.”
Another prominent component of the President’s agenda is improving education.  In his address, he described persistent problems in the teaching of math and science to America’s students.  He also discussed one of his Administration’s signature programs to improve teaching.  
“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success.  But if we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
 
“Think about it.  Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.  And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.  The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.  And so the question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
 
“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities.  It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child.  Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.  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.  We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.
 
“Our schools share this responsibility.  When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.  But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.  To all 50 states, we said, ‘if you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.’
 
“Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.  For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.  And these standards were developed, by the way, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.  And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

Responding to mounting concerns about government spending and the growing deficit, the President proposed freezing total annual domestic spending for the next five years.  Of note, he spoke against “gutting our investments in innovation and education.”  

“So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.  Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.
 
“This freeze will require painful cuts.  Already, we’ve frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years.  I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.  The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without. 
 
“I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without.  But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.  And let’s make sure that what we’re cutting is really excess weight.  Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.  It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095