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Scoring Science in Obama’s State of the Union Speeches

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While “economy,” “jobs,” and “family” were the most-used, non-generic words in President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, according to Mashable, scientific topics got some mention as well. And it got us thinking: How is science doing under Obama’s leadership? And what about the president’s other joint addresses to Congress? What has Obama been saying about science in these speeches, and what actual actions have come out of the sweeping rhetoric? While this is by no means exhaustive, here’s a quick overview.

2015 State of the Union

Science-related topics mentioned:

Research and Education – The president called for paying for basic scientific research (and other key projects, like infrastructure) by closing tax loopholes. He also talked about the new job economy that’ll require more college degrees than ever, and said he’d submit a plan to Congress to cut the cost of community college to zero—provided students keep their grades up and graduate on time.

He also proudly noted that America’s younger students “have earned the highest math and reading scores on record.”

Medicine – Obama announced the launch of a new “precision medicine” initiative; details are still lacking, but it sounds like a project specializing in personalized medicine.

“I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine—one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” the president said. He wants the initiative “to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes—and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

Climate – Underscoring the seriousness of both the threat and the challenge of a changing climate, the president noted 2014 was the warmest year on record and that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. He also called out those politicians who use the fact that they are not scientists as an excuse for inaction. And he highlighted last November’s joint agreement between the United States and China to cut emissions in the next couple decades, offering it up as the leadership needed for the world to develop an international plan to protect the planet.

Energy – Oddly, in light of his views on climate, Obama went on to tout America’s No. 1 position in oil and gas production, and cheer the ~$750 a typical American family should be saving at the pump this year, thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards. Racking focus to renewables, he also championed the country’s No. 1 position in wind power, and noted that we have ramped up our solar power considerably since 2008.

Space Program – Obama also tipped his hat to the space program, highlighting recent NASA launches and (figuratively) saluting astronaut Scott Kelly, who will shortly be living on the International Space Station for a full year: “Good luck, Captain—and make sure to Instagram it.”

2014 State of the Union

Scientific topics mentioned:

Research and Education – Last year, Obama highlighted the launch of two high-tech manufacturing hubs connected to research universities in Raleigh, N.C. and Youngstown, Ohio. He said six more would be launched later in the year.

Obama also called on Congress to undo the cuts to basic scientific research stemming from the 2013 sequester, and asked the legislature to pass a patent reform bill.

Energy – The president also said he would set new fuel efficiency standards for trucks and touted new regulations on carbon emissions from coal power plants that were in development.

Following up:

Research and Education – In February 2014, Obama announced funding for two more manufacturing hubs in Detroit (to produce lightweight metals for the defense, energy, and automobile industries) and Chicago (to focus on design), according to CNN.

The 2014 budget submitted by Congress restored some of the research funds lost to the sequester—mostly in the physical sciences—but many researchers are still feeling squeezed by a lack of funds.

Energy – In February 2014, Obama directed the Secretary of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create new fuel economy standards for trucks, with a proposal due in March 2015 and the goal to have the rule completed in March 2016. The EPA released its proposed rule for coal plant emissions in June 2014; the agency says it’ll have the final rule by summer of 2015.

2013 State of the Union

Scientific topics mentioned:

A bit of a light year for science in the State of the Union.

Technology – The president highlighted the Youngstown high-tech manufacturing hub, which focuses on 3D printing, and said three more would be on the way that year.

Climate – Obama also promised executive actions to curb climate change if Congress didn’t act.

Following up:

Technology – As of 2015, two tech hubs have been opened with at least two more in development (see above).

Climate and Energy – In June 2013 Obama touted a new strategy for tackling global warming, directing the EPA to develop carbon pollution standards for existing coal plants (previous rules applied only to newly built ones). The coal plant rules, as mentioned above, are expected to be finalized later in 2015.

The president also said his approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would be tied to the project’s net effect on the climate. In November 2013, the president issued an executive order directing federal agencies to look at their strategies for coping with the impacts of climate change and make reports to an interagency council.

2012 State of the Union

Scientific topics mentioned:

Research – In the midst of budget battles, the president asked Congress not to gut basic research—mentioning that in addition to medical treatments, fracking techniques were borne of federal research dollars.

Energy – Admitting the country’s drop in the bucket when it comes to domestic oil resources, Obama stated that the United States “needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”

Following up:

Research – Budget gridlock led to the sequester, a slate of automatic cuts across the board of federal agencies. Many scientists are still worried the sequester will hamstring American research for years, if not decades, to come.

Energy – According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Domestic production satisfies 84% of total U.S. energy demand in 2013.”

2011 State of the Union

Scientific topics mentioned:

Education – Nothing particularly significant; the president did say we were entering a “Sputnik moment” that needed increased investment in education.

2010 State of the Union

Scientific topics mentioned:

No new significant proposals.

2009 Address to Congress

(Note: This was not technically a State of the Union address, but it was pretty much equivalent to one.)

Scientific topics mentioned:

Research – The president touted the scientific research dollars that were part of the Recovery Act (more commonly known as the “stimulus”).

Following up:

Research – Overall, the stimulus injected more than $40 billion into science-related projects at the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. By September 2011, those agencies had spent 54 percent of the stimulus funds and committed 98 percent of the money to projects, according to the Government Accountability Office.


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