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Obama Calls for Re-Investment in Basic Research & Focus on STEM Education

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 14:13

Last night, President Obama delivered his 2014 State of the Union (SOTU) address. While matters of direct relevance to the astronomical sciences were not featured in his speech, the President identified basic research and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education objectives for his proposed "year of action"—two issues close to our hearts here at the AAS Executive Office.

If you missed the speech last night, you can find the full text of the President's remarks, archived video of the speech, and accompanying infographics in various places across the web today.

In the area of basic research, the President encouraged lawmakers to build upon what we saw hints of in the FY 2014 omnibus and re-invest strongly in basic research:

We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. This is an edge America cannot surrender. Federally-funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones. That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery—whether it’s vaccines that stay ahead of drug-resistant bacteria, or paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel.

To which I might did reply

though there are far more than 140 characters worth of "great American discover[ies]" in the astronomical sciences alone that could be substituted in there.

On the issue of STEM Education, or really education more generally, the President had this to say:

Of course, it’s not enough to train today’s workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education. [...] Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids. We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before. Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it’s worth it—and it’s working.

While there was no obvious call-out for new programs (as for something like the BRAIN Initiative last year), this demonstrates that the President views STEM education as a priority that is crucial to our success as a nation—a message that was reiterated this morning during the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's State of STEM Education address. Astronaut Joe Acaba, in particular, highlighted the need for students to see challenging STEM curricula, have access to great teachers, and have opportunities to interact with scientists and engineers.

With the President's priorities for his "year of action" laid out, what comes next? The Presidential Budget Request/PBR/PresBud.

Following on the State of the Union, the President will release his budget request for FY 2015, which begins in this coming October. And while it is comparatively easy to make a positive statement about basic research, actually allocating funds that back up that statement is the much more difficult place where the rubber meets the road. The PBR is the result of many months of negotiation between federal agencies and the White House Office of Management and Budget. It is due to be introduced in Congress, by statute, on the first Monday in February. But as has been the case for 3 out of the past 4 fiscal years, it will arrive late—likely about a month or so this year.

The request will fill in the details of how the President would like his priorities implemented in the form of federal agency programming. Some of these will be new initiatives, potentially centering around the issues of advanced manufacturing and innovation hubs, which received SOTU callouts, while others will be clear in the relative amount of growth or cuts to particular programs.

As it does each year (e.g., last year), the AAS Council will issue a resolution that provides the Society's perspective on the budget request as it relates to astrophysics, planetary science, and solar physics. So keep an eye out for that in about a month and a half, unless of course that PBR shows up even later than currently expected...

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
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