Obama on Science

The report of the National Innovation Review were released in September last year while Barack Obama was still running for President. We are yet to hear whether, if anything, the Government is going to move on those recommendations. Today, however, the US President made a speech outlining what he was going to do in the area of science and technology. It is far-reaching, bold (lifting spending on R&D to 3% of GDP) and adopts many of the things our National Innovation Review recommended.

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The speech is here and it is perhaps the best Obama has made since taking office.

The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

Underpinning the speech are some core ideas for the economics of innovation including the recognition of uncertainty as well as the idea that general purpose technologies spur innovative applications.

As Vannevar Bush, who served as scientific advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, famously said: “Basic scientific research is scientific capital.”

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.

It was basic research in the photoelectric field — in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago.

And it is not all about basic, government-funded science:

But the renewed commitment of our nation will not be driven by government investment alone. It’s a commitment that extends from the laboratory to the marketplace. And that’s why my budget makes the research and experimentation tax credit permanent. This is a tax credit that returns two dollars to the economy for every dollar we spend, by helping companies afford the often high costs of developing new ideas, new technologies, and new products. Yet at times we’ve allowed it to lapse or only renewed it year to year. I’ve heard this time and again from entrepreneurs across this country: By making this credit permanent we make it possible for businesses to plan the kinds of projects that create jobs and economic growth.

But it is about energy and the environment.

But energy is our great project, this generation’s great project. And that’s why I’ve set a goal for our nation that we will reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80 percent by 2050. And that is why and that is why I’m pursuing, in concert with Congress, the policies that will help meet us — help us meet this goal.

My recovery plan provides the incentives to double our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy over the next few years — extending the production tax credit, providing loan guarantees and offering grants to spur investment. Just take one example: Federally funded research and development has dropped the cost of solar panels by tenfold over the last three decades. Our renewed efforts will ensure that solar and other clean energy technologies will be competitive.

And it will all be done through a new agency, APRA-E.

But like our innovation review, it isn’t just about science. It is also about data.

The Recovery Act will support the long overdue step of computerizing America’s medical records, to reduce the duplication, waste and errors that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

But it’s important to note, these records also hold the potential of offering patients the chance to be more active participants in the prevention and treatment of their diseases. We must maintain patient control over these records and respect their privacy. At the same time, we have the opportunity to offer billions and billions of anonymous data points to medical researchers who may find in this information evidence that can help us better understand disease. …

In biomedicine, just to give you an example of what PCAST can do, we can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s underway today; undertaking public projects — in the spirit of the Human Genome Project — to create data and capabilities that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories; and identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to rapidly translating scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and therapeutics that serve patients.

In environmental science, it will require strengthening our weather forecasting, our Earth observation from space, the management of our nation’s land, water and forests, and the stewardship of our coastal zones and ocean fisheries.

And then, there is the usual commitment to science and mathematics in education that I am sure others can go into.

It is rare these days to see governments focused on the very long-time but that makes it all the more sweeter when they do.