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Obama spotlights science in his State of the Union address

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night had to hearten the science and technology community. The effort to "win the future," in which the U.S. can compete globally and thrive economically, requires some major investment in research. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," Obama stated.

 

For innovation, Obama noted how, when Sputnik was launched in 1957, the U.S. did not have the science to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. The space race triggered a series of innovations that created new industries and millions of new jobs. And he gave shout-outs to Google and Facebook in noting how the more recent rise of the Internet enabled new businesses to flourish. "This is our generation’s Sputnik moment," he said, and he promised in the next few weeks to send a budget to Congress that will address the need for innovation.

 

He homed in on biomedical research, information technology and, especially, clean energy technology as areas to invest. "We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time." The money would come from shifting subsidies currently given to the fossil-fuel industry (mostly in the form of tax breaks). "With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels," he said, adding his hope that the U.S. will be the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

 

He also offered a more ambitious goal: to have 80 percent of America’s electricity come from clean energy sources, including solar, wind, nuclear and natural gas, by 2035. Maybe that’s not such a far-out idea: in the November 2009 issue of Scientific American , we published an article proposing the possibility of powering 100 percent of the planet with renewables. (This article will be free for the next 30 days.)

 

All this innovation, however, needs a highly educated workforce. "If we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids," he said. He discussed raising school standards and "Race to the Top," an educational reform program replacing his predecessor’s "No Child Left Behind" effort. "We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair," he said to a standing ovation.

 

The third foundation for future U.S. success was infrastructure. Speed seemed to be the key element here, with his hope that 80 percent of the U.S. will be able to take high-speed rail within 25 years and that, within the next five years, 98 percent will have high-speed wireless Internet access. Federal funding would jump-start such efforts.

 

Obama also remarked that although technology has streamlined businesses, the federal government itself has not been restructured since the days of black-and-white TV. He promised some reshuffling, which could affect conservation strategies, health care and other science-relevant policies. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration both regulate different aspects of the food we eat, and consumer watchdogs have long argued that the U.S.D.A. has conflicting missions of making healthy dietary recommendations while promoting the food industry.

 

Indeed, the address was long on aspiration but short on details. Things should become clearer in the next few months. In the meantime, check back here to watch a few Scientific American editors give their take on science-related points raised in Obama’s address. It will be ready by mid-afternoon New York City time. UPDATE (7:10 PM ET): So our one-man video operation is still editing the video, but it should be done by Thursday morning if not tonight. Apologies for the delay.

UPDATE (1/27/2011): Click this link to watch the video.

Image taken from video broadcast of speech





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  1. 1. ennui 1:54 am 01/27/2011

    The discovery of Gravity Control, which I made in 1967 in Canada and later patented is one invention that should have started "An industrial revolution like the world never had seen!"
    This is what Edgar Cayce he said to his sons, after he had predicted the invention (he was ten years off).
    Unfortunately an invention is first ridiculed, then attacked and finally declared self-evident.
    We could have cars that float a few feet off the ground, do not even need roads. Power that is tapped out of the aether, like Tesla did (part of the invention but not described in the patent).
    After finding hundreds of applications, like Tornado and Earthquake control and not getting the funding to develop the applications so that it can be licensed to factories, I must assume that the spirit in the USA and Canada has been deflated.
    The technology could have been applied to the Shuttles, which could have kept the USA on top at low cost.
    The Space disasters would not have happened and we would have had a base on the Moon and mined Asteroids.
    The Moon would have beeen reached in a few hours and Mars inside one day.
    All these dreams have been torpedoed by incompetents and jealousy.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ennui 6:34 pm 01/27/2011

    Further to my previous comment, look at the descriptions:
    > http://www.rexresearch.co/hiddink/hiddink.htm <

    Link to this
  3. 3. YetAnotherBob 7:36 pm 02/4/2011

    Will President Obama’s new science and technological objectives be achieved?

    NO.

    However, just because it can’t all be done, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In the trying, there will be new possibilities that are not now foreseen.

    I do worry though that we will pour billions down the drain in redoing what was done long ago. I remember President Carter. There are many similarities between him and the current president.

    Carter spent billions researching if breeder reactor technology was feasible. At the time, France had been powering their country using breeder reactors for over 10 years. Carter never found out if it was doable. For the price, we could have bought the system from France.

    That president also spent billions on synthetic fuels. Hitler fought most of the Second World War without petroleum supplies. Feasible? Yes. Economic? No.

    President Carters efforts included research on Hydrogen cars and buses. The cars ran fine, as did the buses. Storage was found to be easy with metal hydrides. However, there was no economical way to get the hydrogen gas. Fast forward 30 years, same results, same problem. Germany also came to the same conclusions in the late 1930′s.

    Electric cars were rolled out in the late 1970′s too. That push lasted for about a year. The range is just too limited. Batteries have not improved enough to overcome that limitation. 60 miles seems to be the limit on most affordable electrics today. The same limits that applied in 1905.

    In the end, Carters energy programs were a failure. I fear that this time, it will be just more of the same.

    Link to this
  4. 4. YetAnotherBob 7:37 pm 02/4/2011

    continued . . .

    Wind, Biofuels, both are being tried, but both are not capable of providing the energy we need without severe environmental consequences. The biofuel push has resulted in real worldwide famines. Wind power has already alarmed real ecologists with the large numbers of bird and bat kills. The real long term damage from reduced circulation are not yet known.

    Fusion offers hope, but it has been 20 years away from commercial energy production since 1937. It is still 20 years away.

    Of all the options, only nuclear fission can provide the quantity of power needed with technology that can be shown to work, but our nuclear power designs are 50 years old. While this president, President Obama, correctly identifies the need to build many large nuclear power plants, his party has a large base that will not support that because of negative emotions associated with Hollywood movies where the science was either very poor or non-existent.

    I question his ability to force his own party to do what is needed. I am not sure that the Republicans will be on his side either.

    My greatest fear is that this will just be another science jobs programs, with no tangible results, much like what happened to NASA over the last couple of decades.

    Mr. President, we need results, not just studies. Programs without economically stable results mean program failure.

    Link to this

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