At a moment when scientists are on the brink of making breakthroughs that could significantly improve human lives, broad spending reductions that went into effect in March threaten to stall their progress for up to two years, President Obama told a gathering of scientists on Monday.
âUnfortunately, thatâs what weâre facing right now,â Mr. Obama told an audience of researchers, scientists, and current and former government officials gathered for the 150th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. âBecause of the across-the-board cuts that Congress put in place â” the sequester, as itâs known in Washington-speak â” itâs hitting our scientific research.â
In his 2014 budget, Mr. Obama proposed increasing spending on science and research by about 1 percent, to $143 billion, according to the scientific journal Nature. But his financing proposal, which was already unlikely to become law, now faces the shears of sequestration. Federal agencies have already had their budgets reduced by an average of 5 percent this year, with even more cuts expected next year.
As a result, Mr. Obama said, research is left in limbo.
âInstead of racing ahead on the next cutting-edge discovery, our scientists are left wondering if theyâll get to start any new projects, any new research projects at all over the next few years,â he said, âwhich means that we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter because of misguided priorities here in this town.â
Mr. Obama said the country could not afford delays that would make it difficult to keep up with the pace of technological innovation or allow other nations to get ahead of the United States in science.
âAnd I say that, by the way, not out of just any nationalistic pride â” although, obviously, thatâs part of it,â he said. âBut itâs also because nobody does it better than we do when itâs adequately funded, when itâs adequately supported.â
Echoing his speech at the White House Science Fair last week, Mr. Obama called for increasing investment in scientific research and development to levels âthat we havenât seen since the height of the space race.â
The National Academy of Sciences was established by federal charter in 1863, during the Civil War, with a mandate to advise the government on scientific matters. President Abraham Lincoln called on the academyâs scientists to help fix a problem with the compasses on the Union Navyâs ironclad ships.
The iron siding made the shipsâ compasses unpredictable, âso it skewed navigation, and they were bumping into things and going the wrong way,â Mr. Obama explained. About a year later, on the advice of the scientists, bar magnets were installed on the ships to correct their navigation.
âSo right off the bat, you guys were really useful. In fact, itâs fair to say we might not be here had you not â” certainly I would not be here,â Mr. Obama said, alluding to his status as the first African-American president of the United States.
The academy is made up of more than 2,200 member scientists and 400 foreign associates. Members are elected annually and serve voluntarily, a fact that Mr. Obama jokingly said was âfortunate, because we have no money anyway.â
He also emphasized the need to keep science free from political influence and to finance education initiatives for young researchers and scientists, like those who participated in the science fair last week.
âI know you guys were smart when you were their age, but I might give them the edge,â he said before giving examples of some of the projects that students exhibited at the science fair.
âThey were all dreaming to grow up and be just like you,â he said. âMaybe with a little less gray hair, but they shared your passion.â
The academy is friendly territory for Mr. Obama, who spoke at the organizationâs annual meeting in 2009. Ralph J. Cicerone, the president of the academy, introduced Mr. Obama, comparing him to another president from Illinois: Lincoln, who signed the charter that created the body.
âLike President Lincoln 150 years ago, President Obama clearly understands the importance of science and technology to the future security and prosperity of our nation,â Dr. Cicerone said. âSince taking office, he has been unwavering in his commitment, for example, to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, and in his support of the scientific community.â