In his final State of the Union address, President Obama provided an upbeat vision for the nation’s future that prominently includes American scientific discovery and leadership, also a strong theme of Obama’s past addresses.
“I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond,” said President Obama at the beginning of his final State of the Union address that touched on the American spirit of scientific discovery, national successes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and the scientific consensus on global climate change. Obama framed scientific innovation as one of the keys to unlocking future U.S. leadership and problem solving. He also announced a new “moonshot” initiative to cure cancer, which will be led by Vice President Joe Biden whose son Beau died of brain cancer last year.
Obama delivered the address before a packed joint session of Congress, along with his cabinet secretaries, his Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Supreme Court justices, asking the audience to consider “four big questions that we as a country have to answer—regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress.” Big question number two was: “How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?”
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address in the hour following the President’s speech. In her remarks, Haley did not directly reference scientific research, but she promised the Republican Party would take steps to spur innovation and reform education if a Republican were to occupy the White House:
We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them, so our economy would truly soar and good jobs would be available across our country. … We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.
Obama lauds American spirit of scientific discovery
Obama continued his tradition of promoting federally funded scientific research, especially basic research, in his State of the Union addresses. His 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009 addresses all called for ramped up investment in federal basic research or highlighted the investments his administration was already making in basic research. This year he did not stray from this pattern, calling the spirit of discovery an integral part of the national makeup:
Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there. We didn't argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon. That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better future. That's who we are, and over the past seven years, we've nurtured that spirit.
Much of the audience was likely familiar with Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Sally Ride. One of the other scientists the President mentioned, NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, was recently awarded the National Medal of Freedom for her work on calculating the trajectories of pioneering space launches, including Alan Shepard’s mission during which he became the first American to travel into space and the Apollo 11 manned mission to the moon.
Obama puts Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a “moonshot” to cure cancer
The President announced a major new national initiative, led by the Vice President, to coordinate and elevate resources to discover a cure for cancer. The effort should dovetail nicely with the $1.773 billion or 5.8 percent increase in funding that Congress awarded the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2016:
You know, last year, Vice President Biden said that, with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they've had in over a decade. Well, so -- so tonight, I'm announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he's gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I'm putting Joe in charge of mission control. For the loved ones we've all lost, for the families that we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all. What do you think? Let's make it happen.
Obama highlights successes in promoting STEM education
One of Congress’s and the President’s major legislative accomplishments of 2015 was the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind K-12 education law. The President touted that success and reiterated the importance of STEM education to American job growth and economic competitiveness:
The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve…boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by…offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.
President mocks those who still question the scientific consensus on climate change
Obama made clear that those in the audience who were still not on board with the strong scientific consensus on climate change were increasingly on their own:
Look, if anyone still wants to dispute the science of climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.
Officials and leaders praise Obama for his commitment to science
National Science Foundation Director France Córdova released a statement praising the President’s address, noting “The administration's embrace of science, technology and STEM education has been one of its hallmarks." Leaders in the scientific community similarly commended the President for his remarks as well as his steady commitment over the years to investment in science education and research. In a statement, Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of The Optical Society, an AIP member society, said:
For the last seven years, President Obama has been an advocate for the sciences, seeking to improve education and increase funding for research and development, with a focus on specific challenges, such as the BRAIN Initiative, a key area in biomedicine. … The president has executed on his commitment to fund R&D initiatives, such as the 2015 creation of [American Institute for Manufacturing] Photonics, through his National Network for Manufacturing Innovation program. This investment will augment the development and production of new photonics applications and technologies for advanced manufacturing and strengthen the United States’ global competitiveness.