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.