Obama on Science

By John Conway | April 28, 2009 2:46 pm


President Obama addressed the National Academies of Science yesterday. If anyone doubted that change has come, and come to science, they need to watch this video. We’ve been waiting a long, long time for a president to take this kind of interest in furthering the cause of science in our country. His budget calls for a doubling of our nation’s investment in basic research in the coming years:

“No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals; new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and drought.”

“It was basic research in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago….”

“We double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, a primary source of funding for academic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supports a wide range of pursuits – from improving health information technology to measuring carbon pollution, from testing “smart grid” designs to developing advanced manufacturing processes. And my budget doubles funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science which builds and operates accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, high-energy light sources, and facilities for making nano-materials. Because we know that a nation’s potential for scientific discovery is defined by the tools it makes available to its researchers.”

Words fail me.

  • K P

    What a difference in scientific literacy compared to most idiot politicians out there. It’s clear he has some smart people working behind the scenes to get this done. How many times have you ever heard the words “photoelectric effect” in any politician’s speech??

    Can you contrast this with the contemptuous/frat-boy attitude and ignorance that was invoked by Bobby Jindal when he belittled the scientific research conducted on “something called volcano monitoring”?

  • John

    One thing that I think really needs to happen is that Obama’s addresses like this should somehow make it into the conscious of the mainstream media folks (ome on, Dennis Overbye and Natalie Angier, write about this!) and hence into the general public’s.

  • Andy

    Highlights from the factsheet:

    “…$150 billion over ten years to invest in sources of renewable energy as well as energy efficiency; it supports efforts at NASA, recommended as a priority by the National Research Council, to develop new space-based capabilities to help us better understand our changing climate…

    …increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health, including $6 billion to support cancer research…

    …renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science…

    …the President will call for the U.S. to surpass its record investment in research and development, set in 1964 at the height of the space race, exceeding three percent of GDP…

    …$75 billion to make the research and experimentation tax credit permanent, and funding to triple the number of the National Science Foundation’s graduate research fellowships…

    …finish the 10-year doubling of 3 key science agencies (National Science Foundation, DOE Office of Science, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology)…

    …$5 billion “Race To The Top” fund will encourage states to improve the quality and supply of math and science teachers…

    …will also be supporting 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers with a total planned commitment of $777 million…

    …announce the launch of the $400 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)…”

    Only thing missing it seems is NASA, which hasn’t even got a chief administrator right now :(. It did get $1bn in the stimulus package, but that’s left looking rather skinny when stood next to the above.

    Other than that, if the proposals actually move scientific investment from ~1.5% to 3% of GDP, that’s an extra $200bn p.a. into R&D. Which is just. fucking. nuts.

  • Ted

    I like the increased funding, although it behooves me to point out that the last administration increased the NSF budget by 64% over their tenure. The narrative that we were gasping for funds is a little strained.

    I also worry a bit because we simply don’t have the number of trained scientists needed for this kind of increase. Obama has shown little interest in lifting the visa restrictions that keep us from hiring immigrants. I worry that a lot of this, like previous funding infusions, will go into increased salaries for tenured scientists, rather than more positions and higher postdoc/associate salaries to keep people from leaving the field.

    Finally, the Administration has undone some of Bush II’s politicization of science, but has shown a willingness to politicize it their way — such as on Yucca Mountain or the scientific disaster that is ethanol. And he’s appointing someone to head the NHTSA who is positively hostile to fact.

    So it’s not all puppies and rainbows. Still, Obama seems to actually care. That’s a step in the right direction. Just probably not the giant leap the words make it sound.

  • http://blog.dotphys.net Rhett

    I think everyone agrees this is good for science. However, Obama – like most politicians, miss the point. The point of science is not to get “stuff” (like velcro from NASA, or fusion power plants). The reason we do science is because that is what humans do. The “stuff” is just bonus. (I think I heard Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles say “science is what humans do” first.)

    I put together what I think the key aspects of science are here:


  • Yhoo

    Einstein live not more than half or 3/4 of a century ago.

  • http://fug-experimentalerror.blogspot.com/ FUG

    Science is what people do is a great way to put it.

    But sometimes you have to do a little pandering to make people think it’s worthwhile. It misses the point, but he’s a politician, not an educator.

  • Chris W.

    See this smarmy example—brought to you by Rep. Joe Barton—of what we’re up against.

    (By the way, I’m not of the “they’re too dumb to know better” school. They know what they’re doing every bit as much as the tobacco companies did.)

  • TimG

    Yhoo, Einstein was born in 1879 and published some of his most famous papers in 1905 (clearly more than a century ago).

    Rhett, doing science for the sake of doing science is great, but I think Obama’s arguments have a greater chance of convincing people who don’t necessarily care about science.

  • John

    Scientists will do science for the sake of science because they know its great intrinsic value.

    Non-scientists will support this if they see that, historically, it has been the fundamental basis of the great prosperity and quality of life they now enjoy.

    We’ve proven that, through truly global efforts like the LHC, the world *can* come together and support projects that ultimately lead to knowledge that furthers global progress.

    I stood feet away from Joe Barton, in the ALEPH experiment control room, in August 1989 as the experiment recorded the first Z boson after the experiment turned on. When the room erupted in cheers and champagne was poured into styrofoam cups, he said “hell, this is just like a Texas football game!” Joe was a tireless supporter of science then – because the SSC was sited in his district.

    Now, long after the cancellation of the SSC, lesser minds have held sway with Joe.

  • Disgruntled Grad Student

    Scientists on this blog and in general are so disconnected from the american public and average people that all the frustration and idiocy spouted by them including on this blog is no surprise.

    I’m sure the mom trying to raise 2 kids on welfare or the guy trying to keep track of a drug runner on the border are going to be giddy with delight that a 37 year old nsf funded post doc is going through chandra archives ‘for the purity of the science’ and because science ‘is what humans do’. Perhaps he can do his next post doc at the vatican observatory and develop an algorithm to calculate the number of angels that can fit on a pin head.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It would be nice to see public discourse related to academic science focus more on the notion that paying smart people to simply ask questions and seek answers is intrinsically good for any civilization worthy of the description.

    But since we’re a long way from Athens, as said above, you gotta pander a little. It’s just the ugly reality. Look at any grant application in the life sciences, and if it doesn’t have something like cancer or AIDS or swine flu stuck in there somewhere you’re dealing with a radical.

  • jerry

    I’m a scientist myself and an avid supporter of science research. I also have a deep appreciation of how science can unlock the universe, improve our lives, and allow us to deal with emerging threats. Obama’s speech was brilliant(especially his bit about Lincoln starting the NAS during chaotic times just before the civil war) However, I find statements like:

    “Science is what humans do”

    to be a bit silly. This statement would make anyone not in science feel like crap. As pointed out by the “Disgruntled grad student”, it really does reflect the complete disconnect of most scientists with average people. Science is what a “TINY” fraction of humans do. Even our cavemen ancestors who looked up in the sky and wondered what it all means, were an incredibly tiny fraction of the population. Most of humanity is more focused on relationships: family, friends, love, etc…relationships is what “most” humans do. Even most of science is driven by our need to impress our fellow colleagues about smart we are…i.e. even science is driven by relationships.

    Most scientists lack empathy towards people who are struggling to survive and living paycheck to paycheck. By being outraged that such people don’t support particle physics research shows a complete lack of understanding that while science may be great it is the farthest thing from their minds and understandably so!

    We need more speeches like Obama and less scoffing towards “average” people from scientists with the “science is what humans do” nonsense. Such scoffing is getting really predictable and cliche so please stop it! These remarks are not directed at the author of this blog but rather to the scientific community in general.

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  • Sean

    “Only thing missing it seems is NASA, which hasn’t even got a chief administrator right now :(. It did get $1bn in the stimulus package, but that’s left looking rather skinny when stood next to the above.”

    Complaining about NASA not getting more funding is like complaining about the DoD not getting more funding. Yes, they both do science, but it is a small portion of their mission.

  • zyk

    To Ted: There are plenty of people good at science in, and from, the US, and there would be plenty more if doing science didn’t mean working 150% the hours for 2/3rds the pay.

    One could do engineering or finance, or go to school for an extra 5 years to be a post-doc for another 3, before moving to god-knows-where to start another job that still pays less.

  • nobody

    I wish there were more Obamas out there…

  • http://PlanetThoughts.org David – green thoughts

    This is terrific news. I certainly believe this is NOT fake money, as it aligns with President Obama’s appointments and prior campaign statements. Why would he put himself out on a limb with false budget requests if it is all a fake?

    As far as what it means: for humanity to return to health on the planet requires ALL our functions as human beings to work together, without one aspect (e.g. faith) supplanting the others. Full function of heart, intellect, faith, and energy is the way to foster a more healthy society and a more healthy planet. I hope this is another step in that direction.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh

    Yes, i read the whole speech on the Physics and Physicists blog. Wow.

  • http://doctorzen.net Zen Faulkes

    Ted: “The narrative that we were gasping for funds is a little strained.”

    The NSF is only one federal funding agency, and a relatively minor one compared to, say, NIH. Plus, budget alone doesn’t take into consideration how many people were applying to those programs.

  • http://doctorzen.net Zen Faulkes

    Again commenting on Ted’s “strained narrative” comment, check this chart of NSF’s budget (inflation adjusted, from the looks of it): http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/nsfauth09p.pdf

    NSF’s budget peaked at 2004 and has been flat, or decreased slightly, since.

    Also, comparison of relative size of NSF to other agencies: http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/totalp09.pdf

    Some credit to the GW Bush administration for the COMPETES act and raising the NSF budget is indeed due, however.

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  • Fabian Ledvina

    I disagree with almost all of Obama’s fundamental principles and the actions he has taken, but I have to applaud this. I just hope this is a first step in increasing the public’s awareness of science and hopefully increasing the number of Americans who pursue a further education in the sciences.

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  • locke

    Disgruntled grad student needs to look for a new career. He’s also obviously never met or read anything by any of the small, but very talented, cadre of Vatican astronomers. You owe them all an apology.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    It is simply a pleasure to listen to an articulate major politician who appears to truly ‘get it’ with regards to the real value of science, both pure and applied, to society, beyond just the possible future economic benefits.

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  • ree ree

    Oh Boy! I can’t wait until we start making new human life in the form of human embryos and then killing them so that we can save ourselves from disease!

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  • tehdude

    Nuclear physics denial, anyone? Is it because it has the word “nuclear” in it? So its the kind of physics that liberals don’t believe in?


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