Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Amid Sweeping Budget Cuts, Obama Stands by STEM 

At the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) this week, President Barack Obama said the nation cannot afford to make sweeping budget cuts that threaten to stall the depth and pace of research.

The Academy was created in 1863 by President Lincoln and Congress to help the Union understand the challenges posed to the Navy by new iron-clad battleships during the Civil War. 150 years later, Obama not only praised Lincoln’s forward thinking, but also made it clear that the NAS’s days of solving big questions aren’t over.

“When you look at our history, you’ve stepped up at time of enormous need and, in some cases, great peril,” said Obama.

“When Woodrow Wilson needed help understanding the science of military preparedness, he asked the Academy’s eminent scientists to lay it out for him. When George W. Bush, more recently, wanted to study the long-term health effects of traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, he set your scholars to the task. Today, my administration relies on your expertise to answer critical questions like: How do we set our priorities for research? How can we get the most out of the nanotechnology revolution? What are the underlying causes of gun violence?”

Still, the tone of the president’s remarks wasn’t entirely somber. Obama got a few laughs out of the crowd, such as when he thanked NAS’s Civil War-era military research for making his presidency—if not his existence—possible.

“The National Academy soon counted the nation’s top scientists as members. They quickly got to work. By the next year, they were inspecting the Union’s ironclads and installing an array of bar magnets around the compasses to correct their navigation. So right off the bat, you guys were really useful. In fact, it’s fair to say we might not be here had you not. Certainly I would not be here.”

The president also used this as an opportunity to voice his commitment to other science and technology programs such as NASA’s Curiosity rover mission on Mars, solar energy projects, and the BRAIN initiative, which seeks to map out the entire human brain, just as the Human Genome Project set out to map our species’ DNA.

In Defense of STEM

The speech covered familiar talking points as well, such as the importance of STEM-preparedness to being able to compete globally, “because nobody does it better than we do when it’s adequately funded, when it’s adequately supported.”

Naturally, this came alongside a call for greater training in STEM fields as he referenced the promising work he saw at last week’s White House Science Fair.

He also warned that the automatic spending cuts that came with the sequester could set research back for years. These government-wide cuts, totalling $85 billion, were signed into law on March 1 after policymakers failed to reach a budget agreement.

The sequester is expected to hit the scientific research community hard, with federally funded agencies and organizations facing major hits to their budgets. Notably, the National Institute of Health is expecting $1.5 billion in cuts, the National Science Foundation could lose $283 million of its funding, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is facing a whopping $8.6 billion cut in 2013.

“With the pace of technological innovation today, we can’t afford to stand still for a year or two or three years,” he said. “We’ve got to seize every opportunity we have to stay ahead.” He said that not only could this cut us off from the innovations that lost research could have brought, it could also put the nation’s competitive edge in jeopardy.

Instead of racing to the new cutting edge, Obama said that American scientists are wondering whether they’ll develop anything new at all.

Already, Congress (with Obama’s approval) has taken action to rectify flight delays that occurred after air traffic controllers were furloughed as a result of the cuts. But Obama has made it clear that his ultimate goal is to replace all the cuts to scientific research, noting that “investments we make today are bound to pay off many times over in the years to come.”

“What I want to communicate to all of you is that as long as I’m president, we’re going to be committed to investing in promising ideas that are generated by you and your institutions, because they lead to innovative products, they help boost our economy, but also because that’s who we are,” Obama said. “I’m committed to it because that’s what makes us special, and ultimately what makes life worth living.”

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