Just in case anyone wasn’t clear, President Obama blew away any residual doubts this morning that he considers science and technology supremely important to the future well-being of the US. In a stirring and historic speech to the National Academies of Science (audio recording available here), Obama laid out his vision for a nation leading the world in science and technology, not following it.
At the heart of the speech, a commitment to devoting more than 3% of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product to science research, along with new initiatives to ensure better science technology and math education, greater opportunities to translate basic research into socially-relevant innovation, and and a call to the science community to engage with and inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers.
This was clearly a call to arms to the science, technology and engineering communities to re-establish the US as a leader rather than follower in an increasingly technology-dependent world, backed up with strong commitments to make this happen… Energy took center stage – the grand challenge this generation faces to combat “carbon pollution” and create clean energy solutions. But much of the speech concerned how to get there – ensuring the creation of “scientific capital” through basic research, enabling the translation of new knowledge to innovative solutions, and providing an educated and skilled workforce to do the job.
This was a speech with substance, crafted to appeal to an highly appreciative science audience. But the messages clearly reflect a far greater commitment to building the foundations of a successful and sustainable science and technology-based society. It wasn’t so much “ensuring science takes its rightful place” as “scientists – take your rightful place… and here are some things to help you on your way.”
I’m 100% with Obama on the need for sophisticated and well-supported science and technology policies. As I’ve written before, it is inconceivable that many of the global challenges facing society over the next few decades can be addressed without more advanced technologies – along with a good understanding of how to use them – than we have now. And what we heard today is a critical step in the right direction. Importantly, Obama has elevated science and technology to a central position in his policies, and has provided the tools to make them work for society.
But there is still an awfully long way to go. Science and technology won’t lead to socially relevant solutions simply by throwing money and good ideas at them. Effective policies will need to reflect an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how science and technology innovation work, and the evolving role of Earth’s 6 billion and growing citizens in determining the future course of technology-based solutions to pressing problems.
The initiatives announced by Obama today go some way to addressing these challenges, although I suspect more is needed. Emerging policies still seem to be based on the dichotomy between basic and applied research set in place by Vannevar Bush 50 years ago, despite increasing realization that this is a misleading perspective on how best to nurture innovation in science and technology. And there is still a misplaced sense that the key to engagement is education – filling in people’s knowledge gaps so they can see the world through science-focused eyes.
Yet despite these wrinkles, Obama has clearly placed the US on the right track if it is to lead the world in developing science and technology solutions that work – not just for now, but for decades and even centuries to come.