“You’ve got a strong supporter in the White House” President Obama told a gathering on Monday celebrating the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences. In his twenty minute address Obama praised the Academy for striving “to answer big questions, solve tough problems, not for yourselves but for the benefit of the nation.”
In his remarks the President spoke of the importance of scientific research, made indirect reference to a controversy on Capitol Hill about federal support for research, and the importance of STEM education. Selections from his remarks follow:
Federal Investment in Science and Technology:
"Now, the good news is America remains a world leader in patents and scientific discovery. Our university system is the crown jewel of our economy as well as our civilization. And that’s what’s allowing us to continually replenish our stock of people who are willing to dream big dreams and reach higher than anybody else.
“And what I want to communicate to all of you is, is that as long as I’m President, we’re going to continue to be committed to investing in the promising ideas that are generated from you and your institutions, because they lead to innovative products, they help boost our economy, but also because that’s who we are. I’m committed to it because that’s what makes us special and ultimately what makes life worth living.
“And that’s why we’re pursuing ‘grand challenges’ like making solar energy as cheap as coal, and building electric vehicles as affordable as the ones that run on gas. And earlier this month, I unveiled the BRAIN initiative, which will give scientists the tools that they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action, and better understand how we think and learn and remember.
“Today, all around the country, scientists like you are developing therapies to regenerate damaged organs, creating new devices to enable brain-controlled prosthetic limbs, and sending sophisticated robots into space to search for signs of past life on Mars. That sense of wonder and that sense of discovery, it has practical application but it also nurtures what I believe is best in us.”
“And right now, we’re on the brink of amazing breakthroughs that have the chance, the potential to change life for the better -- which is why we can’t afford to gut these investments in science and technology. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re facing right now. Because of the across-the-board cuts that Congress put in place - the sequester, as it’s known in Washington-speak - it’s hitting our scientific research. Instead of racing ahead on the next cutting-edge discovery, our scientists are left wondering if they’ll get to start any new projects, any new research projects at all over the next few years, which means that we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter because of misguided priorities here in this town.”
Total Level of R&D Investment:
“With the pace of technological innovation today, we can’t afford to stand still for a year or two years or three years. We’ve got to seize every opportunity we have to stay ahead. And we can’t let other countries win the race for ideas and technology of the future. And I say that, by the way, not out of just any nationalistic pride - although, obviously, that’s part of it - but it’s also because nobody does it better than we do when it’s adequately funded, when it’s adequately supported. And what we produce here ends up having benefits worldwide. We should be reaching for a level of private and public research and development investment that we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. That’s my goal.”
Grant Process/Peer Review:
“And it’s not just resources. I mean, one of the things that I've tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science - all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review - but in all the sciences, we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us. And that’s why we’ve got to keep investing in these sciences.
“And what’s true of all sciences is that in order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars. And I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process. That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come.”
“That’s why, by the way, one of the things that I’ve focused on as President is an all-hands-on-deck approach to the sciences, as well as technology and engineering and math. And that’s why we’re spending a lot of time focused on the next generation. With the help of [OSTP Director] John Holdren and everybody who’s working with my administration, we want to make sure that we are exciting young people around math and science and technology and computer science. We don’t want our kids just to be consumers of the amazing things that science generates; we want them to be producers as well. And we want to make sure that those who historically have not participated in the sciences as robustly - girls, members of minority groups here in this country - that they are encouraged as well.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re training great calculus and biology teachers, and encouraging students to keep up with their physics and chemistry classes. . . . It means teaching proper research methods and encouraging young people to challenge accepted knowledge. It means expanding and maintaining critical investments in biomedical research and helping innovators turn their discoveries into new businesses and products. And it means maintaining that spirit of discovery.”