Slate of the Union

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

A few hours after Steve Jobs announced the iPad, President Obama delivered a slightly more important speech. What he said—and didn’t say—about the future of science funding and NASA.

Illustration: Shipra Gupta

Obama likely dodged a PR bullet—and the ire of millions of rabid fans—by rescheduling his State of the Union address so as not to conflict with the season premiere of ABC’s Lost. However, he ran right into another one: the announcement of a new Apple product.

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks, the Internet basically drops what it’s doing and listens—when it doesn’t grind to a halt altogether from millions of users flooding servers with their collective attention. And like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, Jobs arrived with a tablet in his hand: the long-awaited iPad. (Like the Nintendo Wii before it, the 24-hour window where it was acceptable to make the same joke over and over about the iPad’s name has now come to a close. Thanks for playing). 

Even with Apple as his opening act, Obama did little to win back the attention of the nerd contingent, with scarcely any of his speech devoted to hot-button issues of science and technology. And rather than discussing the implications of what Obama did say in his address, sci-tech’s chattering classes are instead hard at work imagining the iPad’s future role in the classroom, lab, and hospital.

In fact, radiologists and computer scientists at Stanford had quite the head start, having invented the iPad over a year ago, according to a paper they published in 2008. Unlike Apple’s Kindle- and netbook-killer, this iPad is a piece of software, designed to allow radiologists to draw on, annotate, and otherwise add metadata to clinical images.

I’m no doctor, but this seems like an application tailor-made to run on an actual iPad. And with the recent focus on checklists to reduce medical error (especially in the context of interfacing with technology, as made disturbingly evident in the New York Times’ investigation of radiological overdoses in hospital), a streamlined and idiot-proof device could go a long way. I mean, doctors in the 24th century are still using them, so we might as well get started.

Of all the topics that can be tangentially linked to science, Obama spent the most time in his speech on health care. But considering his focus was on the politics of getting something, anything, past congressional gridlock, science fans had to make do with his spiel on the environment.

Of course, this was all through the lens of job creation, building government-subsidized solar panels and so on. And while visions of a green New Deal are appealing, Obama also managed to irritate a good chunk of his environmentalist base a few sentences later, lumping nuclear power, offshore fossil fuels, and clean-coal technologies in with his plan for developing renewable energy resources. 

Over at Nature’s “Great Beyond” blog, Alex Witze gives a quick breakdown of the State of the Union’s scarce science content, and astutely points out the potential contradiction of the aforementioned energy-related expansions with Obama’s proposed federal-spending freeze.

But the elephant in the room in that regard (for us space nerds, at least) was the future of NASA. Though there was no mention of it in the State of the Union, Obama’s budget for the beleaguered agency is due out on Monday, and the prospects look grim. Rumors have been swirling all week that the administration plans on abandoning the Constellation program and its in-development Ares rocket fleet, along with any chance that post-space-shuttle American astronauts will return to the Moon (or even low-Earth orbit) in the nation’s own vehicles any time soon.

The shuttle program’s final nighttime launch is scheduled a week from tomorrow. After their last missions, the shuttles are slated to be sold off at a deep discount (though the shuttle Discovery already has a future home in the Smithsonian) to anyone who can afford them while fulfilling some basic requirements for historic preservation.

This is the end of an era. For those who put stock in the Golden Age of American science, where the space race led average citizens to be more invested and interested in learning about the natural world, that legacy is on auction block.

Obama seemed cognizant of that dynamic, in a general sense of US innovation leading to job creation, if not new off-world discoveries. Using a bit of Cold War-style international one-upmanship, he said, “China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science.”

And while those nations are undoubtedly investing in technology that will power green economies, they are clawing at America’s space superiority as well. India has announced its first manned space mission, scheduled for 2016. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, has just launched an English-language publication, knowing it is becoming more central to the international space community as NASA’s primacy wanes.

But Russia, who we will be hitching orbital rides with at least until commercial space ventures take off, is circling the drain when it comes to its scientific prowess. In stark contrast to its ambitious plans for nuclear-powered rockets and spacecraft, it can’t even shoot off a ballistic missile without terrifying the Norwegians.

The budgetary changes Obama may soon announce ostensibly wouldn’t adversely affect NASA’s budget for earth-observation missions (which is one of the agency’s great contributions to environmental issues). But barring some major surprises in Monday’s budget, it seems like we should be prepared to take the “S” out of NASA’s name for at least a decade.

In some ways, it would be fitting. When someone asks “Does the US government have any independent capability to launch humans once again into space?”, we can always respond, “NAA.” 

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published January 29, 2010

Tags communication funding politics space

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