Research and Education Take Center Stage in SOTU

The President delivered his annual State of the Union address this evening and made innovation – and the research and education investments that enable it – the central focus of nearly the first 25 minutes of it. It’s hard to quote just a part of it – I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, though the first three pages are pretty key for the science advocacy community.

Giving research and education issues such prominent mentions in the speech is both a blessing and a curse, perhaps. Talking about the importance of these investments 25 mins before he focused the current budget crisis shows the priority his Administration places on them. He was clearly making the case that, even in these fiscally worrisome times where budget-slashing is likely to be the norm, federal investments in research and education have huge payoffs and ought to be protected. But in making the case so prominently, he painted a huge target on research and education funding for Republicans as symbols of the “big government” Democrats are trying to continue to fund, even while the need for cutting spending has never been greater. (That overall federal spending for basic research in the U.S. represents barely a blip in the overall budget picture is largely immaterial. Symbolically, it’s spending, and reducing it means reducing “the size of government.”)

Here are two key quotes that I think show the divergence of views and approaches. From the State of the Union:

We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there.

The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

And from the Republican response, given by House Budget Committee Chair, Paul Ryan (R-WI):

We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.

Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness, and wise consumer choices has never worked — and it won’t work now.

We need to chart a new course.

So it’s a pretty stark division. The science community has its work cut out making the case to Republicans to understand the value of federal investments in fundamental research and education. The President made a good start at it. It’s up to us now to talk about the impact of the computing community – a community in which nearly every major subfield, every major billion-dollar sector of the market, bears the stamp of federal support for research. I hope you’ll help!

Research and Education Take Center Stage in SOTU