President Obama addressed the National Academy of Sciences this morning at the group's annual meeting. Not since John F. Kennedy addressed NAS in 1963 has a president found the time to directly engage with the people whose ingenuity and hard work is directly responsible for many of the greatest improvements in our daily lives. And he did it within his first 100 days. He told a packed house that “the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over,” and maybe his trip to the NAS building – and its timing – show that he’s serious. (Transcript here.)
In the speech, Obama recalled President Kennedy’s visionary investment in the space race, telling the story of astronaut William Anders snapping the famous photo of the earth rising over the moon’s horizon. The huge investments in scientific research and development that paved the way to that photo underscore the main theme of Obama’s speech, which was the intense focus he says he will place on developing clean energy technology for the next century. Obama spoke of funneling more money into primary and secondary education, tripling the number of National Science Foundation research fellowships, and stepping up funding for the Advanced Projects Research Agency – Energy (ARPA-E, a research center modeled on the Department of Defense’s DARPA, which concentrates on “radical innovation”).
This is all great news, but the part of the speech that seemed to really excite the crowd (and listeners like me) was President Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” He received a huge ovation for the line about ensuring science will no longer take a back seat to ideology. He then mentioned his March 9 memorandum on scientific integrity, which had outlined broad principles on separating science from politics and had requested that John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, draw up a series of specific policy recommendations.
Back on April 3, CPR President Rena Steinzor and Member Scholar Wendy Wagner wrote to Dr. Holdren with several of their ideas on scientific integrity policy, and asked him to open a public comment period on the issue. Obama announced that Holdren has done that, and more: he has established an interactive website that allows the public to comment on the memorandum – and comment on each other’s comments. Some commenters have already weighed in, and what follows should be interesting.