President Barack Obama addressed the annual meeting of the National Academies on 27 April 2009. The President’s address, a blend of history and vision, articulated the five pillars of his science policy. Additionally, the President challenged scientists to share “your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.”

Political pundits often seek to link current presidents to their predecessors. These connections are often tenuous, but can help frame modern policy discussions. That said, a unique linkage between President Obama and President Lincoln — both from Illinois — might be their recognition of the importance of science to our nation’s well-being. According to prepared remarks, the president said: “The very founding of this institution stands as a testament to the restless curiosity and boundless hope so essential not just to the scientific enterprise, but to this experiment we call America. A few months after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, before Gettysburg would be won and Richmond would fall, before the fate of the Union would be at all certain, President Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences. Lincoln refused to accept that our nation’s sole purpose was merely to survive. He created this academy, founded the land grant colleges, and began the work of the transcontinental railroad, believing that we must add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery… of new and useful things.”

Moving forward, the President said, “…we face more complex set of challenges than we ever have before: a medical system that holds the promise of unlocking new cures and treatments - attached to a health care system that holds the potential to bankrupt families and businesses. A system of energy that powers our economy - but also endangers our planet. Threats to our security that seek to exploit the very interconnectedness and openness so essential to our prosperity. And challenges in a global marketplace which links the derivative trader on Wall Street to the homeowner on Main Street, the office worker in America to the factory worker in China - a marketplace in which we all share in opportunity, but also in crisis.”

Alluding to recent battles with congressional Republicans over the scope of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Budget Resolution working its way through Congress, the President said: “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 a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.”

Following a reiteration of negative trends in our investment in research, continuing declines in student achievement, and reports of political interference with science, President Obama set forth his goal for science. “I believe it is not in our American character to follow - but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.”

In brief, the President pledged the following five steps: 1. Funding - to double the budget of the NSF, NIST, and Office of Science at the Department of Energy. Additionally, the President will seek a permanent extension of the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit. 2. Clean Energy - the Administration will make an unprecedented commitment to a clean energy economy, including funding for the National Research Council recommended ARPA-E program at the Department of Energy. 3. Improving the nation’s healthcare system - American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will support the step of computerizing America’s medical records, to reduce the duplication, waste, and errors that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The Administration will also seek to increase funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including a multi-year plan to double cancer research at the NIH.
4. The White House pledges to “restore science to its rightful place.” As evidence of this commitment, the President referenced a recent directive to the Office of Science and Technology Policy to “lead a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information.” 5. The President issued a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science. As part of this effort, Obama said “That is why I am announcing today that states making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program.”


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