Obama proposes unprecedented scientific effort

In a speech Monday, the president said he wants the country to devote a historic amount of money to research and education.

Published April 27, 2009 2:20PM (EDT)

If you're going to announce a major push to fund scientific research and train the next generation of scientists, then the beginning of media hysteria over swine flu is a pretty good time to do it. And it just so happens that's the opportunity President Obama found himself with on Monday morning, when he spoke to the National Academy of Sciences.

The timing was just a coincidence, but of course, because he was speaking about science generally, the president did have to address the influenza outbreak. And he did so, albeit briefly. "This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm," Obama said. The digression wasn't a distraction, but a point in the president's favor, as he used it to say, according to his prepared remarks, "One thing is clear -- our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind."

The solution Obama has in mind is an unprecedented level of investment in the sciences -- more, even, than the country spent during the Space Race. "A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation... That was the high water mark of America’s investment in research and development. Since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income -- our GDP. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation’s great discoveries," he said.

"I believe it is not in our American character to follow -- but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development... This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."

One particularly striking point to note about this: That level of funding would almost meet the amount of money spent on defense. To some extent, that may simply represent a shift in where on the budget certain funds are accounted for, as defense spending has always been a key driver of American scientific research, but it's still a sharp difference from the normal state of affairs.

Along those lines, Obama also announced the creation of a new initiative, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). It's modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which played a pivotal role in the development of the Internet.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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