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How Obama inspires a new generation

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Many people are mixed about what President Obama has and has not done in his almost eight years of presidency. Some people think he has been overly meek in foreign policy. History will have to be the judge of that. He has, however, advanced science.


Science policy has not made its way into the presidential debates or to front-page news. President Obama has been at the cutting edge and has advanced science to new levels. Several months back, I wrote about the president’s initiative with “precision medicine” and how the White House was working on finding cures for diseases by finding new treatments and cures by mining the human genome. It was pretty much a one-day story in the press. It shouldn’t have been.


Moved by the South by Southwest conference, the president invited innovators to the White House, naming his daylong conference South by South Lawn. This week, he hosted and spoke at a seminar in Pittsburgh called The Frontiers Conference, and it focused on science, technology and “innovation to drive.” It was also billed as frontiers for the “next 50 years and beyond.”


Frontiers was not just a feel-good conference. President Obama committed $300 million toward science research and projects. The White House put out a fact sheet saying how the money would be used, and it includes:


  • $70 million in new National Institutes of Health (NIH) investments to help researchers better understand the brain and, ultimately, uncover the mysteries that hold the key to future scientific breakthroughs in areas such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

  • $16 million and four new partners within the Precision Medicine Initiative national research study, doubling the number of regional medical health care organizations that will enroll individuals into the large scale health study and push the boundaries of medical care and research innovation.

  • $165 million in public and private funds to support cities in using technology and data to tackle critical quality-of-life challenges, such as traffic congestion.

  • Harnessing the power of data to improve the U.S. criminal justice system, announcing that the Police Data Initiative and the Data-Driven Justice Initiative have each grown to over 100 communities nationwide.

  • Releasing a White House report on preparing for the future of artificial intelligence (AI), outlining the issues that society will have to grapple with to unlock the possibilities of AI.

  • New steps to develop technology – such as deep-space habitats – to help meet the president’s goal of sending a human mission to Mars by the 2030s.

  • $50 million in federal funds to fuel a revolution in small-satellite technology that could provide capabilities such as ubiquitous high-speed Internet connectivity and continuously updated imagery of the Earth.

  • A new space-weather executive order to coordinate efforts to prepare the nation for space-weather events.


These are real “wow” kinds of investments. When President Kennedy announced that the U.S. wanted to go to the moon, it captured an entire generation. We (the baby boomers) thought anything was possible. It gave us something to strive for. Every time a Mercury rocket was launched, we all worked harder in mathematics and science. President Kennedy’s goal inspired a generation.


President Obama is seeing past the moon to Mars. His Frontiers conference outlined many areas of exploration, frontiers such as in precision medicine and local frontiers such as new research and investment in more open data and even what is now called “the Internet of things.” President Obama outlined national frontiers that will create jobs (not just destroy them with robots like in China) such as working out the possibilities of artificial intelligence and robotics that will help us as a country advance.


As part of global frontiers initiatives, the president has been active on the issue of climate change. Some people think there is no such thing as man-made climate change. It does not matter why you think climate change is happening; it is. President Obama now has the Climate Data Initiative, U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, Climate Services for Resilient Development and Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness. Previously, President Obama invited 25 minsters from other countries to discuss research in the Arctic.


Lastly, the conference focused on space exploration, a segment titled “Interplanetary Frontiers.”


History will tell if President Obama was right with the Iran agreement, or if he correctly handled Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cuba, but no one can dispute that he is the “science president.” His ideas, his conferences and his goals will work to inspire a whole new generation.


It would be nice to hear about plans to continue the Obama science work at the final debate, but I am not holding my breath. There is too much talk about sex and not enough about science.


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