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A New Era Of Responsibility

by Rudy Baum,
January 26, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 4

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA'S Inaugural Address was an inspired and sober call to action, not a laundry list of programs, as was appropriate for the occasion. The address, however, indicated that our new President is acutely conscious of the important science, technology, infrastructure, and education challenges our nation faces.

Early in the address, Obama said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. ... Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many—and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."

Later in the address, the President said, "[W]e will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

Obama made what was probably his signature challenge late in the address: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

As scientists and engineers, members of ACS have much to contribute to this new era of responsibility.

Last week, Harvard University chemistry professor and Nobel Laureate E. J. Corey called me to point me to a letter to President Obama signed by 49 Nobel Laureates arguing that increased funding for science should be part of the economic stimulus package now being debated in Congress.

"The stimulus package provides a vital opportunity to begin rebuilding American science," the letter states, "because increased science funding is an ideal economic stimulus: It creates good jobs across the economy, there is a large pent-up demand so that money can be spent immediately, and it represents an investment in the infrastructures of scientific research and higher education that are vital to our economy's future."

Corey also shared with me a letter he had sent to incoming Obama science adviser John Holdren in which he argued for a "substantial and immediate increase in the merit-based NSF, NIH, DOE, DOD, and NASA graduate and postdoctoral fellowship programs. This could be implemented on a meaningful scale in time for the first group of fellows to start in September of this year, so the economic effect would be fast. The cost would be very reasonable, in fact a bargain given the long-term benefits."

As C&EN reports this week (page 9), the House Appropriations Committee's $825 billion economic stimulus package will significantly affect the chemistry enterprise. It would, for example, give NSF $3 billion—above the agency's $6 billion budget—to spend over 20 months on research, training, instrumentation, and infrastructure projects. Other science- and technology-focused agencies such as NIH, NASA, and the Department of Energy would receive increases as well.

I think these proposed increases in spending on science, technology, and infrastructure are among the most valuable investments our nation could make. Reinstating a significant science fellowship program also makes a great deal of sense.

Obama's call for a new era of responsibility, however, rings loud for me. I believe science should be an important component of the economic stimulus package, but those receiving such funds should recognize that they have a responsibility to society in conducting their research and training the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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