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Obama touts science, education in State of the Union address

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US President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address last night, invoking innovation and education in science and technology as central to his nation’s prosperity and well being.

In contrast to previous years, Obama did not face any outbusts or breaches of decorum from a Congress still shaken by the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people and left Representative Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, After first paying tribute to Giffords – who was reported to have watched the address from her hospital bed, alongside her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly – Obama turned to a familiar theme: maintaining US competitiveness in a rapidly changing global economy.

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” he declared, to vigorous applause. Obama then outlined a broad agenda for improvements to US research and development, education and infrastructure.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said, adding that his forthcoming 2012 budget would make good on a pledge he first made two years ago to “reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the Space Race.” As part of this effort, Obama said, “we’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”


During the address, Obama also stressed the need for better math and science education and for greater recognition of the importance of teaching. He added: “To every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

Obama also called for a renewed emphasis on infrastructure and, as in the past, championed the development of high speed rail across the US, which right wing politicians have typically dismissed as too costly.

Speaking before a divided Congress, with the House under Republican control and the Senate held by a bare majority of Democrats, Obama often appeared to seek a centrist position by expressing a desire to work together with legislators without surrending earlier gains. On health care reform, the most divisive issue of the previous Congress, Obama said he would support improvements to his new health care law but not a repeal of the law, which the House voted for earlier this week.

Later on in his address, Obama focused on the question of how to rein in the US government’s historic $1.42 trillion deficit. In a nod to public concern about government spending – widely perceived as having cost the Democrats control of the House during last November’s midterm elections – Obama proposed a five-year freeze on the government’s domestic (non-military) budget. For science agencies such as National Science Foundation, NASA, or the National Institutes of Health, this suggests an actual budget decline during this period while inflation gradually drives up the cost of doing business. Obama did not elaborate on how he plans to navigate the difference between his proposed freeze and his promises to increase science-related investments.

He acknowledged that a budget freeze at current levels is unlikely to satisfy Republican members of the House, including the many “Tea Party” backed candidates now beginning their first terms as legislators. Republicans have called for reductions in the federal budget to 2008 spending levels or even lower, which would require science agencies among other government departments to reduce or even abandon programs.

How all of this will play out in detail will become much clearer in mid-February when Obama presents his budget for 2012 and Congress, meanwhile, votes on a 2011 budget that is expected to include stiff austerity measures.

Anticipating the battle ahead, Obama said, “It will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law.” And yet, he said, “As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

Obama also raised his desire to reform US immigration law – another contentious topic – highlighting the plight of children of undocumented workers who, despite growing up in the US, often lack access to education and face deportation. Returning to the theme of competitiveness, Obama questioned the policy that allows foreign students to attend US universities but prevents them from applying their academic training in the US after they graduate.

“As soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us,” Obama said. “It makes no sense.”

Photo Credit: The White House

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