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04.05.2009


Obama issues scientific call to arms



30 April 2009



President Obama has pledged billions of extra dollars towards scientific research and development (R&D) in a bid to maintain the US's position at the forefront of science and technology.


The President announced plans to devote more than 3 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) to scientific R&D, a $47 billion (£31.6 billion) a year boost from the current level of 2.66 per cent of GDP.


The announcement came during a 27 April speech at the US National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC. 'We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science,' Obama stated. 


'This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.'


European R&D expenditures lag compared to the new US target. In 2002, the European Union set as a goal for member states to raise R&D input to 3 per cent of GDP by 2010, but progress has been slow. In the UK, for example, only 1.8 per cent of GDP currently goes towards R&D.


Outperformed


During his speech, Obama also sounded the alarm over the state of US education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). At the nation's high schools, more than 60 per cent of chemistry and physics students are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields, he said. Obama predicted a shortfall of more than 280,000 maths and science teachers across the country by 2015. 


'Our students are outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Korea, among others,' Obama told the NAS forum.


To address this, states making strong commitments and progress in maths and science education will be eligible to vie for new funds under the Secretary of education's $5 billion 'Race to the Top' programme this autumn. The fund will give high-performing states the opportunity to modernise laboratories and 'improve the use of science and technology in the classroom,' the White House explains. 


Furthermore, the Obama administration is supporting investments in scholarships to attract and prepare high-quality maths and science teachers. States will also be permitted to use money allocated under the recently enacted economic stimulus bill to modernise and renovate science labs.


These efforts are in addition to a National Governor's Association initiative that aims to boost the number of states making STEM education a priority. Six states currently participate in the scheme; Obama wants all 50 to become involved.


Significant parallels


There are significant parallels between the education situation in the US and UK, according to Richard Pike, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the UK. 'The direction here is the same as in the US - there is a shortage of specialised experts who can teach their own subject, and great difficulty in getting good teachers because they are not that well-paid so graduates with good degrees often go elsewhere,' he tells Chemistry World.


The RSC has campaigned for increased recruitment of science and maths teachers in the UK, but despite a commitment from the government to rapidly recruit 3000 more several years ago, Pike predicts this goal won't be met for at least five years because of competing budgetary priorities. 


'In contrast, Obama is making some very bold commitments, and the impression is that he will deliver,' Pike says. He warns that this could mean a brain drain for the UK. 'If science really takes off in the US as a result of these bold initiatives, one could imagine research students here in the UK being attracted there.'


Back in the US, the American Chemical Society hailed the President's commitments as 'extraordinary'. Thomas Lane, the group's president, expressed particular support for Obama's pledge to help put key science agencies on a 10-year doubling track. Lane also endorsed his focus on science education at the federal and state level.


Groups that represent research universities, like the Association of American Universities, say it's been decades since a US president has made science so central to his agenda. 'Our nation's research universities, which play a fundamental role in the country's innovation infrastructure, are grateful for this recognition, and, more importantly, are prepared to help make his commitment pay enormous dividends for this and future generations of Americans,' says Robert Berdahl, the organisation's president.  


Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe



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