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President Obama today declared investment in science research more essential than ever in calling for a commitment larger than any in U.S. history.
"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been. And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it's today, he said, speaking of the swine flu outbreak sweeping across North America.
Speaking at the National Academy of Sciences, Obama said the emerging cases are cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. "But it is not a cause for alarm," he said.
"But one thing is clear — our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened."
U.S. falling behind
Obama said the United States is falling behind other nations and that we must commit to an unprecedented level of federal investment in the sciences, from raw research to an improved health care system to higher standards of education in math and science.
Excerpts from his prepared remarks:
"Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of our gross domestic product has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century. Time and again we've allowed the research and experimentation tax credit, which helps businesses grow and innovate, to lapse.
"Our schools continue to trail. Our students are outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Korea, among others. Another assessment shows American fifteen year olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world.
"And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas."
The president said investment in science hit a high water mark 50 years ago with the advent of the Space Age. "Since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income — our GDP. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation's great discoveries."
He vowed to devote more than 3 percent of 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."
Range of goals
The investments would be aimed at reducing the cost of solar cells, making buildings that produce their own energy, advanced prosthetics, and "an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us."
Obama claimed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, along with the present budget in Congress, has his administration already providing the largest single boost to investment in basic research in American history. Budget requests would double funding to the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science.
He cited shrinking university endowments as another reason for federal investment.
Obama acknowledged that payoffs are not always quick or even clear, which are reasons why public money must be involved.
"The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all," he said. "And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not."
Won't be easy
He also acknowledged the more complex nature of discovery today.
"There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation's challenge to break our dependence on fossil fuels," he said. "In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve — and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead."
Obama called for a new organization called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, to do "high-risk, high-reward research" aimed at reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. It would be based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which was created during the Eisenhower administration in response to Sputnik.
The president reiterated his commitment to respecting the integrity of science. "I have charged the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information," he said. "I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions — and not the other way around."
To that end, he announced the appointment of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to advise him on "national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation." PCAST will be co-chaired by John Holdren, the White House's top science advisor; Eric Lander, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate.
To encourage states to improve science and math education, Obama announced 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.
"I am challenging states to dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms," he said. "And I am challenging states to enhance teacher preparation and training, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to better engage students and reinvigorate these subjects in our schools."
The White House created a new web site to seek public input on all these proposals having to do with science and technology.