Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obama's stirring speech on science skirts around the "e word"

Barack Obama gave a stirring speech on the place of science in the American dream yesterday, while addressing the US National Academy of Science. Curiously, the speech didn't even get mentioned in the UK press and is buried away in the Science and Technology section of the BBC News website. And it stands in marked contrast to the miserly and short-sighted treatment of science by the British government in our recent budget!

You can access the full text of the speech via the White House website and watch it or listen to it via the National Academy web site.
There are some great lines:
"At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments 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...
A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation; to invest in education, in research, in engineering; to set a goal of reaching space and engaging every citizen in that historic mission. That was the high water mark of America's investment in research and development. And since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation's great discoveries.

I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It's our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I'm here today to set this goal: 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.

This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."
It's great to see Obama lavishing praise on basic science and not looking for immediate payback:
"The fact is an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.

And that's why the private sector generally under-invests in basic science, and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research -- because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.

No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals, or new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and to drought."

But what I think is most interesting is the way in which Obama skirts around the issue of evolution and its place in the American education system. He harks back to the sputnik era and the space race, which spawned a renewed investment in science teaching and re-introduced the teaching of evolution in American public schools:
"When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik a little more than a half century ago, Americans were stunned. The Russians had beaten us to space. And we had to make a choice: We could accept defeat or we could accept the challenge. And as always, we chose to accept the challenge.

President Eisenhower signed legislation to create NASA and to invest in science and math education, from grade school to graduate school. And just a few years later, a month after his address to the 1961 Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, President Kennedy boldly declared before a joint session of Congress that the United States would send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth."
And he promises a renewed commitment to education in science and maths, that parallels that of the Sputnik era and he challenges states "to dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms."

Towards the end of the speech, he gently touches on the issue of the impact of science on religion, leaving the issue of evolution hanging in the air for any perceptive listener, but he can never quite bring himself to utter the "e word":
"Yes, scientific innovation offers us a chance to achieve prosperity. It has offered us benefits that have improved our health and our lives -- improvements we take too easily for granted. But it gives us something more. At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it.

And some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long-held views. Science can't answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values -- these moral sentiments, that faith -- can put those things to work -- to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth."
The message is clear: a renewed investment in science education is going to challenge the "long-held views"of much of the American public and force evolution and all the issues surrounding it into the American classroom with renewed vigour. But the elephant in the room isn't mentioned! I look forward to the time when Obama feels comfortable enough to use the "e word" directly and forcefully in one of his speeches without equivocating or skirting around the subject—when he uses his the full force of his oratorical skills to call on the listener to defend and extend the Theory of Evolution!


Janet said...

He doesn't mention the living world much at all. We get energy use and carbon pollution, forests, fisheries and biological processes, but for the most part the planet seems eerily uninhabited.

Jonathan Badger said...

There's certainly cases where politicians skirt around mentioning evolution, but I don't see this as one of them. Obama's seeing science as a source of technical solutions, mostly -- as Janet mentioned -- non-biological solutions, not as a way of knowing.