Along with running the free world, President Barack Obama has spent the past seven years guiding U.S. science and technology policy. The initiatives and goals he puts in place—in clean energy, space, medicine, education, nanotechnology, and more—help direct research, which in turn directs the future. With one year left in the Oval Office, the president talks about what he’s achieved, what’s left to do (a lot), and why being a nerd is one of the best ways to serve your country.By Cliff Ransom Photography by F. Scott Schafer
Popular Science: You have been a very pro-science president. Why do you see science and technology as being so important?
Barack Obama: Science and technology helped make America the greatest country on Earth. Whether it’s setting foot on the moon, developing a vaccine for polio, inventing the Internet, or building the world’s strongest military, we’ve relied on innovative scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to help us tackle the toughest challenges of our time.
In my first inaugural address, I promised that my administration would restore science to its rightful place, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve expanded clean-energy research; we’ve launched major initiatives in advanced manufacturing, biomedicine, and strategic computing; we’ve increased preparedness and resilience against climate change; and we’re training STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] teachers so every child grows up with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. Being pro-science is the only way we make sure that America continues to lead the world. Our policies reflect that.
PS: Among your White House initiatives, you’ve focused heavily on improving STEM education in America. What’s your proudest achievement on that front?
BO: There’s a lot to be proud of. We now graduate 25,000 more engineers per year from our colleges and universities than we did when I took office. We’re more than halfway toward our goal of preparing 100,000 new math and science teachers by 2021. We’ve secured more than $1 billion of private investment for improving STEM education, and commitments from college and university leadership to help underrepresented students earn STEM degrees. There’s also something that’s harder to measure, but every bit as important: all the young people, including minorities and young women, who are more excited than ever about pursuing their passions for STEM.
One of the new traditions I’ve started as president is the White House Science Fair. We ought to celebrate science fair winners at least as much as Super Bowl winners. And when young people are excited about science, technology, engineering, and math, that’s not just good for them. That’s good for America. We want the next game-changing industry or life-saving breakthrough to happen right here in the United States.
PS: Do you consider yourself a nerd and, if so, what’s your nerdiest pastime?
BO: Well, my administration did write a pretty detailed response to a petition, explaining why we wouldn’t build a real-life Death Star, so I’d like to think I have at least a little nerd credibility built up.
What’s remarkable is the way "nerd" is such a badge of honor now. Growing up, I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who read Spider-Man comics and learned how to do the Vulcan salute, but it wasn’t like it is today. I get the sense that today’s young people are proud to be smart and curious, to design new things, and tackle big problems in unexpected ways. I think America’s a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid—and that’s a good thing!
PS: You also put heavy emphasis on developing innovation and entrepreneurship. How do you make Silicon Valley happen all over the country?
BO: Innovation and entrepreneurship are already happening all over the country. New technologies like cloud computing, big data, and 3-D printing are lowering barriers to entry. And you can now collaborate with partners around the country or across the world, practically at the speed of light. So no matter where you live, there has simply never been a better time to launch an idea and bring it to scale in America.
Of course, we’re working to make it even easier for entrepreneurs. No matter who you are, what you look like, or what ZIP code you’re born into, if you work hard, you should have the chance to go as far as your talent takes you. That’s why our TechHire initiative, which works to place more Americans in well-paid tech jobs, has expanded to 35 cities, states, and counties. It’s also why we hosted the first-ever Demo Day and Maker Faire at the White House. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m the first president to welcome a 17-foot-tall robotic giraffe onto his lawn.
Some of the most inspiring scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors I meet are also some of the youngest. Elana Simon presented her work at one of our science fairs. At age 12, Elana survived a rare form of liver cancer. She teamed up with one of her surgeons to gather data about her disease from across the country and discovered a common genetic mutation across the samples she collected—all before graduating high school. That’s the kind of story we want to see more of, from every part of America. And I have no doubt that, thanks in part to our policies, we will.
BO: When it comes to precision medicine, advances in technology, data science, and clinical research are already curing diseases that were once thought to be incurable. It’s entirely possible that a decade or two from now, treatments would be tailored not just to the disease, but also to the individual patient. We’re being careful to protect patient data and to make participants partners in this work. Because if we embrace precision medicine in the right way, the possibilities for better treatments are practically endless.
The BRAIN Initiative is another project whose time has come. Right now, we can identify galaxies billions of light-years away. We can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter that sits between our ears. I believe that with America leading the way, we can change that. Hundreds of scientists and dozens of universities, companies, foundations, and other organizations have stepped up to help us tackle this challenge.
PS: You’ve also advocated the development of a private space industry to work alongside and complement government efforts. What is your vision for space exploration and commercialization? Who does what?
BO: I’ve laid out a vision for space exploration where our astronauts travel out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. To build a sustainable human presence in space, we’ll need a thriving private-sector space economy. I see the expanding space industry as an addition to, not a replacement for, the extraordinary work of NASA. With industry taking over tasks like ferrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station, NASA can focus even more intensely on the most challenging exploration missions, like landing astronauts on Mars or learning more about Earth and the rest of our solar system.
As we set our sights toward other planets, we can also create good jobs here on this one. American companies have begun to reclaim the lucrative market for launching commercial satellites. That’s just one example of the way that a growing space economy can help American workers succeed.
PS: If you were to end up on Mars, who would you want as your companion: Mark Watney from The Martian, or Ellen Ripley from Alien?
BO: As long as it’s a hypothetical question, can’t I pick both? If I’ve got Matt Damon growing potatoes and Sigourney Weaver taking care of any unwelcome intruders, I like my chances.
PS: It’s been barely two months since a climate agreement was struck in Paris. How do you think the agreement will be remembered 20 years from now?
BO: I believe the Paris agreement can be a turning point for our planet. It’s the biggest single step the world has ever taken toward combating global climate change. When I traveled to Paris at the beginning of the climate conference, I said we needed an enduring agreement that reduces global carbon emissions and commits the world to a low-carbon future. That’s exactly what we achieved.
The American people should be proud because this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership. The skeptics said that taking action to transition to a clean-energy economy would kill jobs. Instead, we’ve seen the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. We’ve driven our economic output to all-time highs, while driving our carbon pollution to its lowest level in nearly two decades.
These kinds of concrete steps helped bring more countries to the table. With our historic joint announcement with China last year, we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides between developed and developing nations that had stymied global progress for too long. And that accomplishment inspired dozens and dozens of other nations to follow our lead and set ambitious climate targets of their own.
PS: Some wonder if the Paris agreement will truly forestall climate change. Do you think it goes far enough?
BO: No agreement is perfect, including this one. But the Paris agreement is the enduring framework the world needs. It will mean less of the carbon pollution that threatens our planet, and more jobs and economic growth driven by low-carbon investment. And it will reduce or delay many of climate change’s most damaging effects.
As strong as it is, this agreement will not, on its own, prevent those effects entirely. And so the end of the Paris conference is by no means the end of our work. In fact, now we must begin the next phase: investing in the technologies and unleashing the innovations so we can continue on the path to meet the targets we’ve set today. That means our governments, our scientists, our businesses, our workers, our investors—everyone working together to build a low-carbon future and the new jobs and industries that it will generate. And because countries agreed to come back to the table every five years, we’ll have the chance to set even more-ambitious targets in the years to come.
BO: Before you can solve a problem, you have to understand it. That’s why we’ve fought hard to protect the funding for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a government-wide effort to help us see what’s happening in the present so we can better predict the future. Thanks to their efforts, our satellites, aircraft, ships, buoys, and terrestrial-monitoring systems are providing indispensable insights and strengthening the models that tell us what to expect going forward.
My administration hasn’t just helped to advance climate science—we’ve also made good use of the results. We used the most up-to-date insights from climate science as the basis of our national Climate Action Plan. And we’ve begun to develop accessible climate databases and tools that help governments, businesses, and citizens protect themselves from the effects of climate change that we can’t avoid.
BO: Fifteen of the planet’s 16 warmest years have come in the first 16 years of the 21st century. The warmest year yet was 2015. The Pentagon is warning us that climate change will threaten our national security by fostering instability overseas. Here at home, we’re seeing longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons, coupled with devastating droughts. Last year I visited Alaska, where towns are literally being swallowed up by rising sea levels. Miami now routinely floods at high tide. So this debate is over. The question now is what we do about climate change because there is such a thing as being too late. And I think that regardless of their party, if candidates for elected office want to resign your children and grandchildren to a world that’s broken beyond repair, then there’s simply no way they deserve your vote.
BO: Well, here’s what we’ve done. Over the past seven years, we have transformed America into the global leader in fighting climate change. We’ve set new fuel standards for cars and trucks, invested more than any administration in history in growing industries like wind and solar, taken unprecedented steps to protect our natural resources, and set limits on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can dump into the air. Most important, we’ve proved that we don’t have to choose between a growing economy and a safer planet for future generations. We can have both.
But in the end, when I think about our efforts to combat climate change, I don’t just think about CO2 emissions levels or degrees of global temperature rise. I think about my two girls, and the grandchildren I’d hope to have one day. I imagine myself pushing a little boy or girl on a swing set, out in the open air, looking up at the sun. In that moment, I want to know that the planet’s going to be in pretty good shape. And I want to have contributed to that.
Because that’s our goal: to leave behind a better, safer, more prosperous world for our kids and grandkids. That’s our most important mission in the time we have on Earth. And after seven years as president, I’ve never been more confident that together, we’ll succeed.
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