Lincoln was a believer in science, a believer in our capacity for innovation and the possibilities it represented. He saw our future prosperity tied to our ability, as a nation, to create. So does Obama. In many areas, the president has matched the rhetoric of his (and Lincoln’s) speech with concrete action.
In April 2009, Obama created a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which he has turned to nearly every month since to ask hard questions and demand science-based answers. He has fought for — and in a number of cases succeeded in — increasing science and new technology funding. He has appointed highly credentialed, public-spirited scientists to key agencies.
So it came as no surprise, then, that a central theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the modern extension of Lincoln’s commitment to science and innovation and of his insistence that we add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
Cars that can run on sunlight and water. A million electric cars on the road by 2015. High-speed rail. A faster, more accessible Internet. Renewable technologies paid for by eliminating subsidies to oil and gas companies. These, all mentioned by the president in his address, are just a small sampling of what awaits an America that rededicates itself to scientific pursuit over the next decade.
The goal — “to win the future” as the president put it — is, indeed, a worthy one, especially when you consider how poorly we have handled the recent past. Largely because of trade policies that place profits ahead of working people, more than 40,000 factories have been shuttered in less than a decade. Meanwhile, American 15-year-olds rank 25th in the world in math, and 21st in science, and we are haunted by a skills shortage that makes it harder to compete. All the while, we spent the better part of a decade with a president who scorned science, and a federal government that always let politics trump scientific progress.
But while Lincoln was committing himself to the advancement of science and innovation, he remained focused on ending the nation’s more immediate and immobilizing crises. President Obama must do the same; it is today’s job market, not tomorrow’s, and the victims of our historic chasm between great wealth and deep poverty, that deserve his primary focus now.