The honorees stood, backs ramrod straight, facing the audience at the White House. Each was about to receive either the National Medal of Science or the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. As the moment stretched, the silence of anticipation filled the room. Suddenly, a cellphone chirped—literally—with a sound of a cricket in an empty field. The audience roared with appreciative laughter. Then President Obama swept into the room and up to the podium.

The mood was buoyant as the President awarded a dozen men and women the nation's highest scientific honor. "The folks behind me have made a bigger difference in the lives of us than most of us will ever realize," said Obama, citing their work in cancer research, Parkinson's, energy efficiency, aircraft safety features, charge-coupled devices for cameras and more.

Obama noted that three quarters of the honorees were born outside the U.S., but they came here because "America is the best place in the world to do what they do."

But in a global economy, that kind of success "won't be enough if we can't grow some [scientists] here at home," he added, saying that "barely one in 10 students is enrolled in STEM [science, technology, engineering and medicine] subjects. They need support to succeed. As the people on this stage will tell you, nobody gets here on their own."

The President recalled a visit a couple of weeks ago by the three teenage winners of the Google Science Fair: "I'd like to point out that all three were girls," and "I had them over to the White House and I pretended I understood them." Shree Bose, the grand winner, he said, worked to improve a treatment for ovarian cancer. "Young people like Shree and the people on this stage make me incredibly hopeful about the future."

Images: Mariette DiChristina