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Obama boosts science in State of the Union address

US President Barack Obama’s 65-minute State of the Union address last night (24 January) touched on themes and issues that were expected, calling for measures to revitalize the economy and urging that the very wealthy pay higher tax rates — a minimum of 30% for those with more than $1 million in income.

But it also included multiple references to subjects near to scientists’ hearts. Here is a sampling of points in the speech that touched on science, medical research, education, energy and the environment. (For greater detail on the policy proposals mentioned in Obama’s speech, see here.) Bear in mind that many of the president’s proposals would need action by a Congress that is seriously divided on partisan lines.

– Obama urged lawmakers not to “gut” US investments in basic research, arguing among other things that “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” and create lightweight vests that protect police and soldiers from “any bullet.”

– Calling on Congress to “stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs,” the president argued that a path to citizenship should be created for foreign students who come here to study subjects like business, science and engineering. “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”

– Obama took aim at rising tuition costs in colleges and universities, threatening to withdraw some federal support if the institutions don’t keep their tuition hikes in control. “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down,” he said.

– In an effort to boost high-value jobs, the president called for a doubling of the tax deduction for high-tech manufacturers. (To prevent the offshoring of jobs he also proposed that multinational companies be required to pay a basic minimum US tax for profits and jobs generated overseas – a contentious proposal that would doubtless spark a battle in Congress. “Every penny” of the tax, he promised, would be used to reduce taxes for companies that locate in the US.)

– The president vowed that his administration will take “every possible action” to safely develop hydraulic fracturing and, with it, he claimed, 600,000 new jobs by the end of the decade. He said that companies engaged in fracking on public lands will be compelled to disclose the chemicals they use.   Americans, he argued, would thus not have to choose between the economy and the environment. (He added: “And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock.”)

– In a clear reference to failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, Obama conceded that not all technologies pan out and that “some companies fail.”  “But,” he added, “I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy….. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany”. He urged lawmakers to end tax “giveaways” to the oil industry and instead “pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.”

Near the end of his speech, Obama (pictured above with Jon Favreau, White House Director of Speechwriting, on 23 January) drew a direct line from tax policy to medical research, citing the oft-repeated observation that billionaire Warren Buffet is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary (who, conveniently, was seated in the audience in the packed House of Representatives.) “Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research?”  the president asked.

Mary Woolley, the president and CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based lobbying group Research!America applauded Obama’s explicit support for basic research and said it reflects the views of a majority of citizens in recent polls.  But she worries about the prospect of automatic spending cuts for federal government agencies in 2013, which are set to occur under a deficit-reduction agreement reached by lawmakers last year, and urged that health research agencies be spared. “Cutting funding for research is not a deficit reduction strategy,” she says.

For a look at the positions and history of  Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich on scientific issues, see this article in Nature‘s news section this week.

You can also compare Gingrich’s and Obama’s recent responses to a Research!America questionnaire on health research and scientific competitiveness issues.  (Romney has not responded to the questionnaire.)



  1. Report this comment

    Houari Benyagoub said:

    The next president of the United States has a major impact in the domain of research.
    The religious ideology will determine the search direction for the next 5 years.
    Liberty of conscience of researchers will not be free.
    It is already the case for political reasons …..

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      Ashton Laker said:

      What do you think of Ron Paul for 2012? interested in your thoughts..

  2. Report this comment

    Houari Benyagoub said:

    Ron Paul reminds me the anarchists or punks.
    He wants only freedom and no state.
    Here in France, I think he would be very marginalized.
    We always used to have a very strong state.
    Kings and nobles had the right to life and death over their subject.
    All of our freedoms have paid the blood money.
    That why, I find it’s hard to understand Ron Paul.
    Also, I think that without a strong state the United States will no longer be the United States.

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