State of the Union Skimps on Science

For those expecting President Barack Obama to expound on the accomplishments of his laundry list of science and innovation policy he outlined in last year’s State of the Union, there were a few nods to but no specifics in this third State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.

As Forbes reported this morning for those interested in science and science policy the President’s address “offered some pretty thin gruel.”

The President stayed loyal to his pet issues of investment in basic research, jobs creation, education, clean energy and innovation.

With an expected mention of Steve Jobs he tied basic research to innovation. He said…

“Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched. New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future. Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.”

As in previous years President Obama focused his remarks around preparing and educating the country to create new jobs, new industries, innovate new energy sources, safeguard our security and find national prosperity. But in this speech, the President bookended his address with salutes to military achievements — first of getting U.S. troops out of an autonomous Iraq and then in ridding the world of Osama Bin Laden. And in the end he proclaimed…

This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

But where is the meat of science policy that dotted previous addresses?

Last year the President kept the commitment he made in his State of the Union by submitting to Congress a budget with increases to National Science Foundation as a way to bolster basic research.

This year, he said…

Don’t gut these investments in our budget.

Last year President Obama set an ambitious goal: By 2035, he wants 80 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean energy sources.

This year he focused on natural gas being extracted from shale in the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing. He said…

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock –- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

Now, what’s true for natural gas is just as true for clean energy. In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled, and thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.

Like last year the President found a 55-year-old furniture maker in need of job retraining. Last year it was North Carolinia’s Kathy Proctor who moved into the biotechnology field. This year he featured Bryan Ritterby from Michigan to tell the story of how a luxury yacht factory was converted to make wind turbines, which enabled Bryan to get a new job.

He also featured Jackie Bray, a single mom from North Carolina who went from being a mechanic to community college where she was retrained in lasers and robotics and now works for a gas turbine factory owned by Siemen’s in Charolotte.

President Obama made a clear point. The economy is changing and so must the way we educate people and prepare them for a new kind of workforce. He said…

Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that –- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.

One way he proposes fixing it is by allowing students who come to the U.S. to study or those born here but to undocumented worker parents to become full citizens. He said…

Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.

That doesn’t make sense.

If those words sound familiar, you’re right. President Obama said almost the same thing last year. Then he said, “Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”

Like last year, the President renewed his call for foreign students who are trying to obtain advanced degrees to be allowed to stay in the U.S. once they finish their studies.

Last year, he said, “But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”

This year, he said…

But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.

On a final environmental note, President Obama recognized that comprehensive climate change legislation is not even on the political table this year. In a stern voice he threw down the gauntlet and challenged Congress to take a baby step. He said…

The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well, tonight, I will.”

The President announced that the Department of Defense is making a large clean energy commitment. He says the Navy is purchasing one gigawatt of wind energy electricity capacity, enough to power 250,000 homes each year. He also unveiled an executive plan to develop enough clean energy opportunities on public land to power three million homes.

But following a State of the Union last year that got many us all excited about the role in science in the Administration there were some conspicuous absences.

Like increasing access to taxpayer-funded research. Last year the President talked about openness and transparency in government that would allow taxpayers to see where research dollars go. But there was no mention of that commitment this year.

Alex Knapp, a reporter at Forbes adds to the list of missed State of the Union mentions. He asks the President, “Why not a program for building more makerspaces in public libraries? Why not build more on the contests the government has been running to solve certain scientific problems? How about broadening access to taxpayer-funded research and doing more to let the public and entrepreneurs out there know what discoveries are ripe for developing into economic opportunities? How about anything besides a banal platitude?”

SOTU Factoids:

Number of times Science mentioned 2
Number of times Technology mentioned 2
Number of times Engineering mentioned 1
Number of times Math mentioned 0
Number of times Climate mentioned 1
Number of times Innovation mentioned 6
Number of times Energy mentioned 23
Number of times Education mentioned 8

Republican Rebuttal Factoids:

Number of times Science mentioned 0
Number of times Technology mentioned 1
Number of times Engineering mentioned 0
Number of times Math mentioned 2
Number of times Climate mentioned 0
Number of times Innovation mentioned 0
Number of times Energy mentioned 2
Number of times Education mentioned 1

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