"Our generation’s Sputnik moment is back": President Obama Reiterates His Support for R&D

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Publication date: 
8 December 2010

Research  and development continue to play a prominent role in the national discussion  about restoring America’s economic prosperity.   Following last week’s release of the report   by The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommending “expanding  high-value research and development in energy and other critical areas,”  President Barack Obama discussed the value of R&D two separate times this  week.  The first was during a 40-minute address  at a community college that was largely devoted to the importance of innovation  that provides an expansive view of the President’s position on R&D, the  second in response to a question at yesterday’s White House press  briefing.  Excerpts from both follow:

White  House Press Briefing, December 7, 2010

“But  we’ve got to have a larger debate about how is this -- how is this country  going to win the economic competition of the 21st century?  How are we going to make sure that we’ve got  the best-trained workers in the world?   There was just a study that came out today showing how we’ve slipped  even further when it comes to math education and science education.

“So  what are we doing to revamp our schools to make sure our kids can compete?  What are we doing in terms of research and  development to make sure that innovation is still taking place here in the  United States of America?  What are we  doing about our infrastructure so that we have the best airports and the best  roads and the best bridges?  And how are  we going to pay for all that at a time when we’ve got both short-term deficit  problems, medium-term deficit problems, and long-term deficit problems?

“Now,  that’s going to be a big debate.  And  it’s going to involve us sorting out what government functions are adding to  our competitiveness and increasing opportunity and making sure that we’re  growing the economy, and which aspects of the government aren’t helping.”

Forsyth Technical Community College –  West Campus, Winston-Salem NC, December 6, 2010

“. . . over the next several weeks, I'm  going to be meeting with my economic team, with business leaders and others to  develop specific policies and budget recommendations for the coming year.  Today I want to outline the broader vision  that I believe should guide these policies -- and it’s a vision that will keep  our economy strong and growing and competitive in the 21st century.”

“Some of you know I traveled through  Asia several weeks ago. You’ve got a billion people in India who are suddenly  plugged into the world economy.  You’ve  got over a billion people in China who are suddenly plugged into the global  economy.  And that means competition is  going to be much more fierce and the winners of this competition will be the  countries that have the most educated workers, a serious commitment to research  and technology, and access to quality infrastructure like roads and airports  and high-speed rail and high-speed Internet.   Those are the seeds of economic growth in the 21st century.  Where they are planted, the most jobs and  businesses will take root.   

“Now, in the last century, America was  that place where innovation happened and jobs and industry always took  root.  The business of America was  business.  Our economic leadership in the  world went unmatched.  Now it’s up to us  to make sure that we maintain that leadership in this century.  And at this moment, the most important  contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans.  It’s between America and our economic competitors  all around the world.  That's the  competition we've got to spend time thinking about.

“Now, I have no doubt we can win this  competition.  We are the home of the  world’s best universities, the best research facilities, the most brilliant  scientists, the brightest minds, some of the hardest-working, most entrepreneurial  people on Earth -- right here in America.   It’s in our DNA.  Think about  it.  People came from all over the world  to live here in the United States.   That's been our history.  And  those were the go-getters, the risk-takers who came here.  The folks who didn’t want to take risks, they  stayed back home.  Right?  So there’s no doubt that we are well equipped  to win.

“But as it stands right now, the hard  truth is this:  In the race for the  future, America is in danger of falling behind.   That's just the truth.  And when  -- if you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re not paying attention.  In a generation we have fallen from 1st place  to 9th place in the proportion of young people with college degrees.  When it comes to high school graduation  rates, we’re ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations -- 18th.  We’re 27th in the proportion of science and  engineering degrees we hand out.  We lag  behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.

“When global firms were asked a few  years back where they planned on building new research and development  facilities, nearly 80 percent said either China or India -- because those  countries are focused on math and science, and they’re focused on training and  educating their workforce.

“I sat down with President Lee of South  Korea, and I asked him, what’s the biggest problem you have in education?  He said, you know, these parents, they come  to me and they are constantly pressuring me; they want their kids to learn so  fast, so much -- they’re even making me import English-speaking teachers in,  because they want first-graders to know English.  I asked him about investment in research and  development.  He says, we're putting  aside 5 percent of our gross domestic product in research and development -- 3  percent of it in clean energy.

“You go to Shanghai, China, and they’ve  built more high-speed rail in the last year than we've built in the last 30  years.  The largest private solar  research and development facility in the world was recently opened in China --  by an American company.  Today China also  has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputer in the world.

“In 1957, just before this college  opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as  Sputnik.  And that was a wake-up call  that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and  education -- particularly in math and science.   And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once  we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American  technologies, industries, and jobs.

“So 50 years later, our generation’s  Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment.   If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot go back to  an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up  credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are  built on financial speculation.  We’ve  got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.

“We need to do what America has always  been known for:  building, innovating,  educating, making things.  We don’t want  to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries.  We want to create and sell products all over  the world that are stamped with three simple words:  ‘Made In America.’  That's our goal. ”

“Now, I want to emphasize I say this  knowing full well we face a very difficult fiscal situation.  I’m looking at the books back in Washington,  and folks weren’t doing a real good job with their math for the last decade.  So now that the threat of a depression has  passed, and a recovery is beginning to take hold, reducing our long-term  deficit has to be a priority.  And in the  long run, we won’t be able to compete with countries like China if we keep  borrowing from countries like China.  We  won’t be able to do it.

“So we’ve already started making some  tough decisions.  And they’re unpopular  and people get mad, but we’ve got to make some decisions.  I’ve proposed a three-year freeze in all spending  that doesn’t have to do with national security.   And I proposed a two-year freeze in the pay for federal workers.  That’s why we’re currently studying  recommendations of the bipartisan deficit reduction panel that I  commissioned.  We’re going to have to be  bold and courageous in eliminating spending and programs that we don’t need and  we can’t afford.

“But here’s where there's going to be a  debate in Washington over the next year and over the next couple of years and  maybe over the next five years, because I will argue and insist that we cannot  cut back on those investments that have the biggest impact on our economic  growth . . . . “

“That’s why even as we scour the budget  for cuts and savings in the months ahead, I will continue to fight for those  investments that will help America win the race for the jobs and industries of  the future -- and that means investments in education and innovation and  infrastructure.  I will be fighting for  that.”

“We’re reforming K-12 education -- not  from the top down, but from the bottom up.   Instead of indiscriminately pouring money into a system that’s not  working, we’re challenging schools and states to compete with each other -- to  see who can come up with reforms that raise standards, and recruit and retain  good teachers, raise student achievement, especially in math and science.  We call it Race to the Top where you get more  funding if you show more results -- because part of the argument here is, is  that if we’re going to have a government that's smart and helping people  compete in this new global economy, then we’ve got to spend our money  wisely.  And that means we want to invest  in things that are working, not in things that aren’t working just because  that's how things have always been done.”

“Now, what’s also true is a lot of  companies don’t invest in basic research because it doesn’t pay off right  away.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not  essential to our economic future.  Forty  years ago, it probably didn’t seem useful or profitable for scientists and  engineers to figure out how to increase the capacity of integrated  circuits.  Forty years later, I’m still  not sure what that means.  What I do know  is that discoveries in integrated circuits made back then led to the iPod and  cell phones and GPS and CT scans -- products that have led to new companies and  countless new jobs in manufacturing and retail, and other sectors.

“That’s why I’ve set a goal of  investing a full 3 percent - not 2 percent, not 2.5 percent - a full 3 percent  of our Gross Domestic Product into research and development.  That has to be a priority.  

“If this is truly going to be our  Sputnik moment, we need a commitment to innovation that we haven’t seen since  President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon.  And we’re directing a lot of that research  into one of the most promising areas for economic growth and job creation --  and that's clean energy technology.   I don’t want to see new solar panels or  electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or in Asia.  I want to see them made right here in  America, by American businesses and American workers.”

“And throughout history, the  investments I’ve talked about - in education and innovation and infrastructure -  have historically commanded the support from both Democrats and  Republicans.  It was Abraham Lincoln who  launched the Transcontinental Railroad and opened the National Academy of  Sciences.  He did it in the middle of a  war, by the way.  But he knew this was so  important we had to make these investments for future generations.  Dwight Eisenhower helped build our highways.  Republican members of Congress worked with FDR to pass the G.I. Bill.

“More recently, infrastructure bills  have found support on both sides of the congressional aisle.  The permanent extension of research and  development tax credits was proposed by both Bill Clinton and George W.  Bush.  Our education reforms have been  praised by both Democratic and Republican governors.

“So the point is there should not be  any inherent ideological differences that prevent Democrats and Republicans  from making our economy more competitive with the rest of the world.  If we’re willing to put aside short-term  politics, if our objective is not simply winning elections but winning the  future then we should be able to get our act together here, because we are all  Americans and we are in this race together.”