President Obama gave his seventh and final annual State of the Union address for his two terms as president tonight, and he took to the opportunity to include numerous science and tech references in his speech. The president addressed America's science and tech accomplishments of the past, as well as his proposals for the future. Notably, he said the United States should aim to develop clean energy to combat climate change, and he announced a new "national effort" to cure cancer.
As in the past several years, the White House also went ahead and posted the entire transcript of the prepared State of the Union address text online as the speech began, this time on the blogging platform Medium. I've gone ahead and highlighted the big science and tech topics included therein, along with some introductory annotations of my own. Read the full address here.
Perhaps the most concrete sci-tech proposal included in the speech, President Obama called for a "national effort" to cure cancer as a kind of "moonshot" (language also previously employed by Google to describe its own ambitious projects). Here's some of what Obama had to say about the idea;
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 they’ve had in over a decade. 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 forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.
'Solving' Climate Change
Obama referenced the recent COP 21 climate change agreement out of Paris and also his ongoing (and controversial) government support for clean energy (via loan guarantees, tax credits, and other funding mechanisms). Yet he also took pride in the fact that fossil fuel prices have gone down under his tenure. As he said:
Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around 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...
But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?
Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy — something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly sixty percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.
Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.
Eliminating AIDS and Malaria
The president asserted that the U.S. is close to eliminating new HIV/AIDS transmissions, and said that malaria should be next. Advocacy group Avert notes that while Obama's administration did usher-in the first truly comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention and management program nationwide in 2010, the U.S. is still seeing about 50,000 new cases a year.
When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick, that prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores. Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year.
Space Travel, Past and Present
Obama made a glancing reference to the recent efforts of private spaceflight companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin to create new spacecraft for bringing astronauts into low earth orbit, but also harkened back to the U.S. moon landing and the-then Soviet Union's Sputnik launch to call for "the spirit of innovation" to be "reignit[ed]" in America.
In fact, many of our best corporate citizens are also our most creative. This brings me to the second big question we have to answer as a country: how do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?
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.
One of the lesser-known efforts of the Obama Administration has been to spur the opening of public/private centers focused on new forms of manufacturing like 3D-printing, a handful of which have indeed already been created at universities and other labs across the country. Obama made a quick reference to the program in his #SOTU:
We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.
American STEM Pioneers
The president also referenced American sci-tech pioneers of the past as well. As he said:
That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world. And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit.
As with many speeches by political figures, the address was short on the specific details of how the president hoped America would accomplish the goals he laid out, but we will be tracking those as they emerge in the coming days (or don't!). Regardless, even discussing the topics as openly and vociferously as President Obama did meant it was a good night for sci-tech in Washington.