Obama pledges 3 percent of GDP for research

BLOG: Highlights of what the president announced to the National Academy of Sciences

President Obama addressed the National Academy of Sciences and other dignitaries this morning with a list of new pledges for initiatives to boost science and engineering research. Below: a highlight of those mentioned in his 9 a.m. EDT talk:

OBAMA AT NAS The President exhibited his respect for how science can bolster the nation’s economy and limit energy profligacy. Photo by Patricia Pooladi courtesy National Academy of Sciences

The United States and world are wracked by a series of economic, political and resource problems. “At such a difficult moment,” Obama acknowledged, “there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. The support for research is somehow a luxury at moments that are defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

That’s one reason the president gave for why the United States “can’t allow our nation to fall behind [in science and engineering fields]. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened. Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of our gross domestic product has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter-century, he said. “And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.

“We know that our country is better than this,” he said. And to rekindle scientific endeavors, the president pledged that his administration would substantially advocate for bigger investments in research — and would nag Congress to find the funding for such programs.

Currently, other countries are beginning to “pull ahead” of U.S. scientists, engineers and biomedical researchers “in pursuit of this generation’s great discoveries,” the president said. But Obama argued that “it is not in our character — the American character — to follow. It is our character to lead.”

 Toward that end, he challenged the nation with a number of new national goals:

1)  “We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.” (Not surprisingly, this drew a huge applause from the NAS members present.) “This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history,” Obama said.

2) He also announced the creation of a new initiative recommended by the National Academy of Sciences: an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E. It’s based on the Defense Department’s DARPA, created during the 1950s in response to Sputnik. The Internet, Global Positioning Satellite applications, stealth technologies — all “owe a debt to the work of DARPA,” Obama noted. And, he added, “ARPA-E seeks to do the same kind of high-risk, high-reward research.”

3) Through the new “stimulus package,” and with the support of Congress, “my administration is already providing the largest single boost — the investment in basic research — in American history.”

4) Aspects of the new Obama federal budget blueprint would double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the primary source of funding for university research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technologies. Notably, the president noted, these provisions have been accepted in versions of spending legislation that have passed both the House and Senate. Obama added that his budget proposal also would double funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which builds and operates huge physics instruments (such as accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, high-energy light sources and facilities for making nanomaterials). Explained Obama: “A nation’s potential for scientific discovery is defined by the tools that it makes available to its researchers.”

5) His administration is “committed to increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health, including $6 billion to support cancer research — part of a sustained, multiyear plan to double cancer research in our country.” Big applause.

6) The President said his new budget will make the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent. This program, he said, “returns $2 to the economy for every dollar we spend, by helping companies afford the often high cost of developing new ideas” — and, of course, products.

7) Where putting a man on the moon was the 20th century’s “great project,” Obama says “energy is this generation’s great project. And that’s why I set a goal for our nation that we will reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80 percent by 2050.” Big applause. “And that is why I’m pursuing, in concert with Congress, the policies that will help us meet this goal. My recovery plan provides the incentives to double our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy over the nest few years.”

Obama’s visit to speak before the NAS was only the fourth time a president has done so since John Kennedy took office. And the current president’s comments this morning fell on sympathetic ears . So applause came frequently and enthusiastically. 

The president also covered some old ground — issues we’ve heard before but with a slightly different take (see next blog).

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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