President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, his first before a Republican-led legislature, was studded this evening with references to science and technology amidst talk of middle class tax cuts, thawing U.S. relations with Cuba, economic empowerment and closing the pay gap between men and women. The speech included mentions of climate change, energy, education, basic research and healthcare. (See the full prepared speech here.)

Notably, the president urged the nation to follow in Tennessee’s footsteps and allocate funding that would make the first two years of community college tuition-free, a policy initiative backed by the editorial board of Scientific American in its September 2014 issue. And of the 23 guests invited to sit in first lady Michelle Obama’s box—individuals who typically get a shout-out during the address—almost half were there to represent health and science issues. But in his speech, only one new science initiative—buoying efforts to use individuals’ genetic data to streamline medical diagnoses and tailor the treatment of their disease—was rolled out. Below are more details on the science and healthcare highlights from the president’s speech:


More Americans have health insurance thanks to expanded Medicaid programs and new online marketplaces, both as a result of the Affordable Care Act, but the president did not invoke the controversial law by name, instead opting to talk about increased healthcare access more generally. “In the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage,” he said.

Still, too many Americans must clock in while feeling under the weather, in turn, infecting their colleagues, the president said. He renewed his call for federal action to require employers to let workers earn up to seven paid sick days a year. Although federal paid sick leave legislation has been proposed every year for the past decade, it has ultimately been scuttled each time. (In the interim, 16 U.S. cities as well as Connecticut, Massachusetts and California have taken action to help address this problem with their own laws that require employers to provide employees with paid sick leave.) The president said:

Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington.”

Hailing the hard work of healthcare workers and researchers to help tamp down the Ebola epidemic that has swept across west Africa, the president said, “the job is not yet done—and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.” One potentially brighter spot for health: the president unveiled the Precision Medicine Initiative, which he said would help “bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes” and “give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” He provided no further details about what the program will look like nor how much funding would be required to support it.

Climate and energy

After the U.S. climate deal with China this past fall, the president tonight reiterated his commitment to ensuring that the world’s largest carbon polluters work to rein in their emissions following the hottest year on record. "No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," he said. He also noted that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. “Now, one year doesn’t make a trend,” he said, “but this does—14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.” Obama also hailed America’s “booming energy production” and his all-of-the-above-energy stance, stating in his prepared remarks, “Today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.”

Cyber threats

On the heels of hacks at Sony Pictures Entertainment and the U.S. military’s Central Command Twitter account, President Obama called for legislation to combat the evolving threat of cyber-attacks. “We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. That should be a bipartisan effort. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.” In his prepared remarks he added, “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”


NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, about to begin a year-long mission to the International Space Station, was also present at the SOTU. “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars,” the president said. “In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain—and make sure to Instagram it.” On twitter, Kelly said:

This latest State of the Union address itself, which is designed to outline the president’s agenda for the year ahead and reflect on earlier ones, is not really the beginning or the end of the event. The White House uncharacteristically rolled out its big ticket items in the weeks leading up to the president’s speech and will follow up on the SOTU with social media events and trips around the country. On Wednesday, President Obama is set to take off on Air Force One to Idaho where he will tour the New Product Development Lab at Boise State University’s Micron Engineering Center.

Earlier coverage

Are you curious about how science factored into prior State of the Union addresses? Flash back to Scientific American’s coverage of the past couple such speeches:

Obama Vows More Executive Action on High-Tech Manufacturing, Climate Change Mitigation and Renewal of Science – 2014

Science and Tech in President Obama's SOTU – 2013