Dear President Obama: Congratulations! But We Need To Talk.

An open letter from PopSci to President Obama about science and the future

Dear President Obama,

What a relief, many of us thought this morning. We re-elected a president who supports public funding for research (truthfully, public funding for anything). We re-elected a president who acknowledges the reality of climate change (at least you did in your victory speech if not during the campaign). We re-elected a president who so eloquently describes occupations like doctors, scientists and engineers as the definition of American aspiration.

Still, we have some things to discuss. During the next four years, you will have a monumental opportunity to change how this country lives: How we produce electricity, get around, communicate, share and protect our ideas, explore new places, and tend to this planet. We have some suggestions.

You can use the bully pulpit to change our tax code, like you said last night, but also our patent laws. You can ensure all Americans have access to high-speed communications–in rural areas and in cities–and that we can do what we want with it, no matter our service provider. You can do something about the way we consume fossil fuels, not only to free us from foreign oil but to stanch the flow of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Maybe most importantly, you can remind the public to honor the intellectual courage and curiosity of our heritage. You can fund basic science research and exploration, on this planet and on others. You should not let the rantings of a vocal minority dictate the terms of our conversation on medical research, climate change and science education. Mr. President, you can be the president of the future we all seek, if you are as bold in your actions as you are in your words. Following are some of our suggestions.

The writers and editors of Popular Science

Climate Change
The utter lack of discussion about climate change was a disappointment throughout the campaign. Debates and rallies came and went without a mention of rising temperatures or greenhouse gas emissions–until Hurricane Sandy, when the impact of a changing global climate came home in force. In your victory speech, you said we don’t want our children to live in an America that is “threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” We’re heartened that you’re finally acknowledging this reality, but you must confront it. You can set ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions, as this country already promised to do by 2020, and you can invest more federal funds in alternative energies. But first, ring the klaxons, repeatedly, that this is real and happening now.
Rebecca Boyle, contributing writer

Another suggestion: Revive the discussion about cap and trade. Putting a price on carbon pollution is a matter of extreme urgency. To have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change we must immediately begin reducing our use of fossil fuels. Over the past four years, your administration has provided unprecedented support for clean energy and automotive fuel efficiency. But it’s not enough. Until polluters are forced to pay a fair price on carbon emissions, it will be difficult if not impossible for a clean energy economy to take hold. I urge you to push for a cap-and-trade legislation in your second term.
Seth Fletcher, senior editor

From a technology perspective, unmanned aircraft–especially the self-piloted kind–are indisputably awesome. Moreover, they have a lot to give us. From military intelligence and surveillance aircraft to the Global Hawks that fly science missions through hurricanes, our drones have the potential to make life better. That potential will soar in 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to open up America’s civilian airspace to unmanned systems.

Unmanned aircraft are going to be a huge part of the future of aviation, but with great technology comes great ethical responsibility. We want to see this technology grow and proliferate. We want to see investment in robotics research, and we want to see that investment translate into a safer, more efficient way of living. What we don’t want to see is the human factor so removed from warfare that it becomes easier to tackle problems with a drone strike rather than with statesmanship, diplomacy, and the art of compromise.

We want more drones, but we want fewer shadow wars. Let’s develop a legal, ethical framework for ensuring that the precedents you set in your second term put us on a path for responsible use of unmanned systems technology. The rest of the world isn’t terribly far behind the U.S. in drone capabilities, and others are going to look at the example you set for how best to deploy it.
Clay Dillow, contributing writer

Net Neutrality
The Internet may be huge, but it still needs protection. The ability to do what we wish with our connections–circumvent traditional TV and phone service, for instance–is under attack. It’s not Verizon or Comcast’s Internet, it’s our Internet. Let’s keep it that way. Body block anything that tries to flip net neutrality, and keep the service providers and their despicable tiered-based-on-content pay plans at bay. This isn’t just about preserving our right to cable-cut: it’s about protecting small businesses in the new millenium. If the IP overlords have their way, they could have any and every startup and small competitor in a choke-hold. Don’t let that happen. 
Corinne Iozzio, senior associate editor

Scientific Research
Please keep U.S. science strong. Funding for basic research has dropped almost 10 percent in the past nine years, and with the Budget Control Act set to take effect in January, it will fall even more sharply in the next five. If discretionary spending cuts come to pass, please try to shield science, which is hurting already. Facilities like the Large Hadron Collider and the ITER fusion reactor are being built overseas–taking their grant money abroad, too–and we need labs and research jobs in the U.S. I want kids like Taylor Wilson and Easton LaChappelle to be able to work here as scientists someday.
Katie Peek, Ph.D., information graphics designer (and an astrophysicist)

Space Exploration
Please give our space agency a true sense of purpose. As the Mars rover Curiosity continues to prove, Americans still deeply love our space program and are amazed by what it can do. People of all ages are inspired by our countrymen’s ability to build rockets and robots powerful enough to explore other worlds. NASA is capable of doing great things, but it needs a clear mission–and in your first term, you were unclear at best. Choose to go to Mars, not because it is easy or inexpensive, but because it is hard, and will require immense investment from the public and private sectors. Choose to fund ambitious space telescopes and the research labs that will use them to understand our place in the universe. Or choose to spend more national time and treasure understanding our own planet from the unique vantage point of space. Whatever you do, please be clear.
Rebecca Boyle

Patent Reform
The U.S. patent system now discourages the innovators it’s supposed to protect. Patent issuing has skyrocketed from about 1 million a century to 1 million every four years. The reason for that is simple: The world is eager for scientific and medical research, software and electronics development, and other layer-cakes of ideas. But too many of the recent patents cover broad, poorly scoped ideas, drowning innovation in lawsuits. Companies that own hundreds or thousands of patents they might never use spend their time taking legitimate startups to court. Life-saving drugs and medical tools are kept artificially costly—out of reach of people who need them the most. And instead of building healthy competition that benefits consumers, big businesses engage in patent-buying arms races and billion-dollar legal battles over the mere idea, for example, of fingers touching smartphone screens.

Today’s patent system is bad for science, bad for the economy, and bad for innovation. The SHIELD Act is a good start but falls short. You should arrange a panel of researchers with extensive backgrounds on the costs and benefits of the U.S. patent system, then charge them with developing recommendations to end rampant patent trolling, the granting of patents over broad or obvious ideas, and out-of-scope court judgments. Should you have the chance to pick a new Supreme Court justice, consider judges whose stances enforce legal interpretations of patents that benefit the nation as a whole.
Dave Mosher, projects editor

Sleep Health
The administration has already made great strides trying to get Americans to eat right and exercise. But one basic health need still isn’t getting the attention it deserves: sleep. According to the CDC, approximately 60 million Americans are not sleeping long enough or well enough. This sleep debt leads to some fairly predictable consequences (driving accidents, less work productivity, and more colds and flu). There’s also mounting evidence that sleep is intertwined with health problems in some surprising ways. Several studies released this spring demonstrated that people with sleep apnea are more likely to get cancer. Others have found that decreasing a person’s sleep on just a few nights can have an immediate impact on his body’s metabolism and ability to process sugars. It might not just be that obesity is causing sleep problems, but poor sleep may be increasing obesity, as well.
Susannah Locke, associate editor