A Historic Commitment to Science

DC Science / by Robert Koenig /

President Obama announced he will invest in “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history,” including new energy and science education initiatives.

Credit: Patricia Pooladi courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences

Detailing what he called “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history,” President Barack Obama told the National Academy of Sciences on Monday that he would ramp up R&D spending, create an advanced research agency for energy, and roll out new programs to improve science education.

“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before,” said Obama, in a speech interrupted 15 times by applause. He was the fourth US president to address an annual NAS meeting and the first since John F. Kennedy more than 45 years ago to make that short pilgrimage from the White House so soon after his inauguration.

Offering several specific proposals to back up his inauguration promise to “restore science to its rightful place,” (See Seed’s Rightful Place Project.) Obama announced that he intends to boost funding for key science agencies and create an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which conducts “high-risk, high-reward research.”

He also pledged to deploy his newly named President’s Council of Advisers on S&T (PCAST) to advise him “about national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation.” The White House released the names Monday of 17 new members of PCAST, including scientists, university presidents, and key executives of high-tech industries. (See Breakdown: The New PCAST.)Obama had previously announced PCAST’s co-chairs: Science Adviser John Holdren; Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA.

At a time when the nation faces complex challenges related to energy, health care, and economics, Obama said he wanted to reverse a trend in which the United States has begun to lag behind some competitors. Noting that the United States had greatly ramped up its science spending during the “space race” with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s, Obama said that funding for the physical sciences as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) “has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century.”

Pledging to “exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race,” Obama said R&D funding during his administration will top 3 percent of GDP — a figure that reflects some increases approved as part of the Recovery Act stimulus and proposed in his new budget. The US spent about 2.6 percent on S&T last year, behind the levels of Japan, South Korea, and some European countries.

A primary focus of new research funding will be energy, Obama said, with the goal of reducing US carbon emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050. “There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation’s challenges to break our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said. “But energy is our great project, this generation’s great project.”

To that end, Obama’s budget proposal would, over the next decade, double funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science as well as two other agencies that fund hundreds of key research projects: the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

While basic science is essential, Obama made clear that he also wants to extend R&D progress “from the laboratory to the marketplace.” One step is to make the experimentation tax credit permanent — a proposal in his budget outline. Other initiatives will be considered by PCAST, whose industry members include Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt and Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie.

“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,” Obama 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.”

Originally published April 27, 2009

Tags education energy governance policy

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