The necessity of science

obama-cartoonYou have got to love this guy – or at least his speech-writers.

US President Obama spoke recently to the Annual Meeting of the US National Academy of Sciences. He announced a number of new measures aimed at restoring US science to its proper position. They were enthusiastically received by the audience. (See  Remarks by the President at the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting.)

“Yes we can”

However, this is not about Obama’s announcements – it’s about what he said on the importance and necessity of science. I have heard political leaders here give lip service to the importance of science – and then comes the “but.” “But in the present economic climate we cannot afford to fund science in the manner we would like.” That’s short-sighted and Obama explains why. To him it is precisely in this time of financial and economic crisis that the position of science must be improved.

“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.  (Applause.) “

Referring to the current swine flu situation Obama said:

“But 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 can’t allow our nation to fall behind.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened. “

He announced a goal of devoting 3% of 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.  (Applause.)”

Restoring science to it’s proper place

And this is why I chose the above cartoon. Obama want’s to get rid of the situation under the previous presidency when ideology overrode science:

“Next, we are restoring science to its rightful place.  On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.  (Applause.)  Our progress as a nation –- and our values as a nation –- are rooted in free and open inquiry.  To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.  It is contrary to our way of life.  (Applause.)

That’s why I’ve charged John Holdren and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information.  I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions — and not the other way around. (Laughter.)

(If only executive memoranda could remove the supersition and dishoensty which spawns phenomena like creationism/intelligent design and some of the climate change denial).

Emotional commitment to science

I really liked the fact Obama said the importance of science to humanity went far beyond questions of technology, the economy and standard of living. In this respect it is “like no other area of human endeavour”:

“As you know, scientific discovery takes far more than the occasional flash of brilliance –- as important as that can be. Usually, it takes time and hard work and patience; it takes training; it requires the support of a nation.  But it holds a promise like no other area of human endeavor.”

And:

“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.

We are reminded that with each new discovery and the new power it brings comes new responsibility; that the fragility, the sheer specialness of life requires us to move past our differences and to address our common problems, to endure and continue humanity’s strivings for a better world.

As President Kennedy said when he addressed the National Academy of Sciences more than 45 years ago:  “The challenge, in short, may be our salvation.””

Have a look at the video below for the full speech (30 mins). See if you can notice when he uncharacteristically faltered as he got ahead of his prompter.

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