On Science, Obama Keeps Getting Better and Better–But He's Still Missing Something

By Chris Mooney | April 28, 2009 8:27 am

I have not yet heard the full story of how our president went from someone who didn’t seem all that interested in science a year ago to the incredible proponent that he is now. But in any case, these bonafides are yet again on full display in his recent speech before the National Academies (yes, our president actually went to speak before our national science academy). The big applause line:

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 moments 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 before.

And this was only the beginning; then, Obama pledged the big bucks:

So I’m here today to set this goal:  We will devote more than 3 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.

Wow. If our president does this, it will be staggeringly good for the country–and it would, indeed, represent “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.” And it also may be said that John Holdren, presiding over all this, could become the single most important presidential science adviser in history as well.

One can’t really object to anything in president Obama’s visionary speech–promising new investment in education, a Sputnik-like commitment to our energy challenges, and so on. It’s all better than good–it’s stupendous.

However, there’s still something missing here, nowhere to be found in the president’s speech: The gap between science and society, the issue at the center of Unscientific America. It’s a gap you can’t simply address by pumping lots of money into research–or even by having a president who cares about science and uses the bully pulpit to promote it. Because guess what: This gap is deeply rooted in American history, and has come to exist and divide us in spite of very high level research program that has been going on for some time.

That’s because the gap emerges from poor communication, the media, the culture, religion, the difference between the scientific community’s way of thinking and everybody else’s way of thinking…and much more. I’ll stop there–but I just want to register my hope that the president’s administration, while it devotes all this energy to an unprecedented new investment in research, doesn’t forget about this crucial aspect of the problem as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Energy, Unscientific America

Comments (13)

  1. mk

    This is what it’s coming to, eh?

    Not even Obama’s wonderful speech on science gets a pass with you? The religious have got you so worked up, are working the refs so well, that nothing is left untouched by their (and your!) admonitions. “What about us! What about us!”

    A scientific organization can’t simply do what it is supposed to do: Science. It must first kiss the ass of the religious. Obama can give a great speech on science, but if he neglects to mention religion… oh boy!

    It’s one thing to try and act the moderator between two people on the opposite sides of an argument… It’s one thing if, unprompted, PZ Myers goes all apeshit crazy on religion and you admonish him for not helping a touchy situation… but it’s now to the point with you that even remaining neutral is bad. No speech on science can be given, no scientific paper can be written, no organization can exist unless it bows in obeisence to religion. Unless it prostrates itself and apologizes for its very existence.

    Pathetic.

  2. Steve

    Sorry, but some of us don’t believe that massive government intervention in the economy, forcing doctors to perform medical procedures they don’t want to do, or crippling the economy by imposing highly questionable policies based on the global warming pseudo-science is especially good for science itself.

  3. Fil

    “forcing doctors to perform medical procedures they don’t want to do”

    It’s their job.

    You can’t join the army and then say you don’t want to fight.

  4. Well said, Chris. I think that Obama’s administration would be open to discussion of the communication gap, personally. They’ve done a middling-to-decent job so far of reacting to input. Perhaps a letter-writing campaign is in order, or something?

  5. American history has demonstrated that the gap between science and society is smallest during times of conflict. Conflict has given rise to some of the most important discoveries and inventions in science and technology. Sputnik flooded science programs and schools with government funding and made studying science hugely popular among the general public.

    I hope that the specter of Islamic terrorism is going to bring about a similar surge in applying science to protecting this country. I doubt if climate change will do it soon enough. For instance, detecting nuclear material smuggled across the border swiftly, sensitively and efficiently is still a huge challenge. Can this country’s scientists solve this problem? There are others related to terrorism that also await the application of the best minds’ ingenuity.

  6. Chris,
    While I agree that the gap exists, I disagree that the President is the right person to provide leadership in closing it. Knowledge gaps – whether about science, history, culture, or mathematics – often originate at the local/lowest level in society. They are, especially in modern times, usually baout conscious choices made by one societal group or another regarding who gets access to information and who doesn’t. It’s part and parcel of maintaining class, economic, and culturally based divisions in society.

    So, the changes need to come at the local level and bubble up, not be forced from the top down. Creationists digested this lesson years ago, which is why they have historically worked to get elected to School Boards and Town Councils, not the Presidency.

    As scientists, we’re all members of many local communities – universities, towns, neighborhoods, PTA’s – you get my point. As scientists we have to work at these levels to close the gap. It’s our job – Mr. Obama’s is to ensure that we have the financial and legal backing through “protecting and defending the Constitution” to do that job.

  7. David Bruggeman

    To add to Philip’s point, there’s been next to nothing in typical conversations between science advocates and the government about closing this gap. We haven’t told him it’s a problem, probably because the resource issues is usually first, second and third on the priority list.

    Besides, this address was at the National Academies, and put on video after the fact. I’m pretty sure that those in the gap are amongst the least familiar with the address.

  8. The other point to note is that innovation usually comes from small, free-thinking groups who are given the resources to do whatever they want. Giant consortiums have their roles to play, but one of the biggest laments of this age is the fact that science has become highly institutionalized and not being left to small “garage” groups. Obama should change this.

  9. I think you make an important point, Chris, about the need to communicate what science does. I wonder if there is someone out there who can write a series of children’s books, like the Magic School Bus series, but for older kids, the Harry Potter set.

  10. MartyM

    Closing the information gap will only work if at the same time the special interest “gap” is closed as well. You know those special interest groups are pumping misinformation based upon their ideologies and agendas. Obama did say he wants to “improve education in math and science” so that’s the grass-roots campaign that we have needed for years. But when pseudo-science is presented as fact major news papers and other media, it just adds to the confusion, debate and polarization of people in what they want to believe and how they want to live.

    We can suture the wound, but we must make sure to get all the infection out.

  11. Eric the Leaf

    Ashutosh,
    I agree that during the Sputnik era, some of the great science education programs were developed with the help of NSF. Actually, I believe some of the funding was appropriated before Sputnik. By good fortune, I am associated with one of the few surviving curricula from that era that has not been either discontinued or radically dumbed-down. More recent NSF-funded curricula fall incredibly flat by comparison.

    However, I do not hold out much hope that science education will again reach those heights (at least for most of the population). Perhaps an energy crisis (well, the energy crisis that currently exists, but that gets little attention), rather than the climate crisis will generate some kind of momentum, but of that I am equally skeptical that it can be accomplished at all, or certainly “in time.” For good science education to succeed, the current paradigm of accountabily and high stakes testing needs to be replaced with good curriculum development (but why reinvent the wheel) and teacher training (no matter how advanced one’s degree). I don’t see it happening any time soon and I do not believe that we will see a more scientifically literate population.

    Nor is it just science education that must change. I believe that in all disciplines, we are training children for the wrong future. Aside from science, schools should be training students for a future involving less total energy and practical skills in growing and cooking food, building and repair, health and disease prevention, and other trades and skills which promote products of tangible value–including the arts by the way (though not necessarily those that require massive inputs of electricity). And so on.

    I do not believe that science will provide us with solutions one way or the other. There is probably going to be no techno-fix to the cycle of intensification of production, population growth, and depletion of resources that has characterized human culture for the past 10,000 years and which only has accelerated within the past 500 years. It is human behavior that must change and while government action could help, it will probably be insufficient. Local initiatives may also assist the ecological transition, but those will also likely come up short. Nature, then, will take its course.

  12. MadScientist

    So – what is the president missing? What would you propose he adds?

    I remember decades ago, enthusiasts would get together and have their monthly/weekly/whatever meetings and discuss many things. The radio people were usually one of the most active groups and most people in the group would give a visitor the impression that they knew what they were talking about. Everyone had to go off at some stage and design and build their own radio (not just copy instructions in Popular Electronics). I don’t see much of that anymore. Many modern radios are so complex that I wouldn’t expect many people to be able to design and build their own, but there is no reason people couldn’t still talk about the radio transceivers popular with the buffs 30-60 years ago. So why are such groups disappearing? Why does it seem that a growing percentage of the population has no idea where they get their electricity, water, or even food? Forget about the science bits; I think people are in general losing touch with reality.

  13. Heraclides

    Chris,

    You left out the parts of his speech where he addressed the education issue, which is a large part of the science & society issue.

    I haven’t time to quote these, but could I suggest you add them as a footnote to your article? These certainly are in his speech.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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