Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Obama spotlights science in his State of the Union address


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

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

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