Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama Calls for Science

At the 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama issued a very clear challenge to his nation: “Win the future.”  While the future is something that all nations will share in, it is true that the U.S. does like to have the lion’s share.  Realistically, even if America begins to wake up from its decade-long hibernation, when dreams and ambition were replaced by a sense of entitlement, it will have to share the honour of economic superpower with other nations like China.

To even be included amongst other successful economies, Obama highlighted three areas in which they would need to excel: innovation, education, and infrastructure.  He urged that we respect teachers, and he hoped that today’s bright kids will consider a career in that field.  Teachers are grossly underpaid in America.  In order to get more able bodies and minds into that profession, the government must provide greater incentives (Barack says, “Please,” won’t cut it).

The spotlight of his speech shined brightest on the innovation portion.  He seems to genuinely want to become a world leader in green energy.  This is easier said than done, particularly when you consider that the U.S. is entering the race a decade late.  Nevertheless, it is a race worth competing in, as the world leaders in renewable energy will export their innovations to the slower runners as oil continues to become a less desirable energy source.

His speech was very science heavy, which is somewhat of a ninety degree turn when you consider who his predecessor was.  If I could take his speech one step further, I would say that Americans do not necessarily need to become more science savvy, just more scientifically literate.

Science literacy is the ability to synthesize scientific information.  You do not need to study science to be somewhat versed in it.  When new research in a scientific domain is published in the newspaper, can you understand what it means?  If a nation is filled with people for whom the answer is yes, then it is in a position to lead the technological revolution.

It is not essential that more than 20% of a population work in a scientific field.  It is however imperative that most of the other 80% support technological innovation.  A nation that understands scientific issues like a sustainable biosphere and grand scale energy production is in a position to cast an informed and responsible vote.  In the words of astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, “If you are not scientifically literate, then you are essentially disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process.”

I believe that the United States has a wonderful President.  If you follow the media discourse, it is clear that Americans do not deserve a man as hard-working as he is.  And as good a motivational speaker as he is, it will be the teachers in today’s classrooms that inspire their students to work hard in a field they enjoy.  For some of them, it will be in science or engineering.  For the majority of them, it will not.  All students however, science and non-science alike, will need to have a basic qualitative scientific understanding in order to collectively overcome some major societal hurdles that stand before them.

In the end, winning the future is only a reward if that future is a bright one.

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