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Obama Says Research Investments Needed

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – In the his State of the Union Address to Congress last night US President Barack Obama made the case that government support for research and development to fund innovation is a critical and necessary investment that must be made even in the face of towering national debt.

Obama told Congress that cuts will need to be made throughout the budget to get the US' fiscal house in order, and as a starting point for trimming annual deficits he proposed a five-year budget freeze for discretionary spending.

Such a freeze generally amounts to cuts for most government agencies, after inflation is counted, and could send shivers through the nation's publicly-supported research communities. But Obama vigorously emphasized the value of research and development to the US economy, to its past growth and its future, and called for renewed commitment to investing in research, including biomedical science.

"Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation," he said.

"But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need," he said. "That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs," he continued.

The president couched the need for renewed investment in scientific research and in teaching science and math to young people in a globalization version of a Cold War paradigm, recalling the Soviet Union's success in getting a man in orbit in the Sputnik capsule before the US.

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. "Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.

"We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people," Obama said.

The president did not offer any specifics regarding funding increases in his upcoming budget proposal, but did suggest that he would like to pay for some of it by eliminating taxpayer subsidies to oil companies.

Bill Talman, president of the Federation of Experimental Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News today that while the president talked about "the restrictions all of us will have to face as a result of the budget," certain things, particularly scientific research, are "paramount in their importance for the country."

"I found it very appealing that the three that he listed had funding for biomedical research at the front," he said.

"I think this president is committed in both in deed as well as in word to supporting biomedical research," Talman said, pointing out that the roughly $1 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health in Obama's proposed 2011 budget would have been the largest budgetary increase at NIH in years.

Talman also said that the president's words made clear that his budget freeze proposal does not translate to a flat budget for agencies and institutes that fund research, but that cuts will be made in some areas while more spending or investments will be made in others.