03/19/2009 09:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama and the Promise of Science

Even as public attention focuses rightly on shoring up our nation's financial system and addressing the credit and mortgage crisis, there is something profoundly hopeful unfolding in the sciences that has extraordinary potential for advancing our nation's economic leadership.

President Barack Obama seems to understand intuitively the words of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President and then Chairman of General Motors from 1923 to 1956, who said: "Technological progress - and it is a pity more do not appreciate it - is the one sound approach to increased employment and higher wages. There is no other way." Ironically, the automobile industry may be most at fault for ignoring that advice.

Technological progress is, of course, the result largely of scientific innovation, and the President has set an aggressive course for the sciences in his first 60 days:

o He has appointed renowned scientists, including two Nobel laureates, to top positions in his administration. His nomination last week of Kristina Johnson, Provost at Johns Hopkins University, to be Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, whose Secretary is Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, underscores the point.
o He has made scientific research a significant focus of the federal economic stimulus package, which includes $21.5 billion for research and development, and he has increased science funding significantly in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010.
o He has overturned a 2001 executive order that barred federal funding of research on embryonic stem cells beyond 60 cell lines that existed at the time.
o He has signed a memorandum directing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy "to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" - separating science and politics.

The potential impact of these decisions, even in the short run, is substantial, because science and technology offer the promise of creating the next generation of breakthrough discoveries - in medicine, alternative forms of energy, and climate change, among other areas - that will advance humankind, as well as our economy. These breakthroughs will not simply restore existing institutions but create innovations that expand American leadership.

In science, it's the searching that makes breakthroughs possible. It's trial and error that is most revealing, that provides the unexpected clues, that enables researchers to stumble into transformational encounters.

The future of American discovery and innovation is as much about the atmosphere that we create as it is about the specific research projects, and President Obama is setting the right tone. At his Inauguration, he declared, "We will restore science to its rightful place", and he is now providing the funding to advance that commitment.

But his decisions also reestablish the United States at the forefront of science. Instead of being a nation that shuns stem cell research and effectively exports it to other countries, we now embrace its potential. Instead of ignoring the science of climate change, we now tackle it head-on. Instead of being fundamentally committed to fossil fuels, we now have the potential to lead the world in alternative forms of energy.

These are major breakthroughs in their own right that re-affirm that America will, once again, lead the world in scientific and technological discoveries. That's great news for our economy, because it's been American science and technology - from automobiles to pharmaceuticals to space exploration to the Internet - that has driven our nation to greatness. And with fewer jobs on Wall Street, more of our nation's top students may now be lured to jobs in science and technology.

The challenge is to make the sciences and technology in the United States appealing to the best and brightest from our nation and abroad. We have always attracted great talent from abroad, and we must continue to do so, with visa practices that encourage the best scientists and prospective scientists to come here and stay, while ensuring our national security at the same time.

We must open opportunities to young scientists so that they can see a clear and rewarding career path in academic research. The average age of a researcher winning a first grant from the National Institutes of Health in 1970 was 35.2 years, while it currently hovers around 42.9, with the average age of all NIH grant recipients now at 51.7 years, versus 40.9 in 1970.

We must rebuild the competitiveness of our nation's high school students in science. Too many of our high school science and math teachers just aren't qualified. A survey in 2000 revealed that 38% of math teachers and 28% of science teachers in grades 7-12 lacked a college major or minor in their subject area. In schools with high poverty rates, the figures jumped to 52% of math teachers and 32% of science teachers.

President Obama has set an exciting course in less than 60 days. It promises to unleash our nation's scientific and technological creativity - and with it our economic future. We must now build on that beginning and maximize its extraordinary potential.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first dedicated solely to science.