President Barack Obama on How To Win the Future
Popular Science|March - April 2016

Along with running the free world, President Barack Obama has spent the past seven years guiding U.S. science and technology policy. The initiatives and goals he puts in place - in clean energy, space, medicine, education, nanotechnology, and more - help direct research, which in turn directs the future. With one year left in the Oval Office, the president talks about what he’s achieved, what’s left to do (a lot), and why being a nerd is one of the best ways to serve your country.

Cliff Ransom, photo by F. Scott Schafer

PS: You have been a very pro-science president. Why do you see science and technology as being so important?

BO: Science and technology helped make America the greatest country on Earth. Whether it’s setting foot on the moon, developing a vaccine for polio, inventing the Internet, or building the world’s strongest military, we’ve relied on innovative scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to help us tackle the toughest challenges of our time.

In my first inaugural address, I promised that my administration would restore science to its rightful place, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve expanded clean-energy research; we’ve launched major initiatives in advanced manufacturing, biomedicine, and strategic computing; we’ve increased preparedness and resilience against climate change; and we’re training STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] teachers so every child grows up with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. Being pro-science is the only way we make sure that America continues to lead the world. Our policies reflect that. 

PS: Among your White House initiatives, you’ve focused heavily on improving STEM education in America. What’s your proudest achievement on that front?

BO: There’s a lot to be proud of. We now graduate 25,000 more engineers per year from our colleges and universities than we did when I took office. We’re more than halfway toward our goal of preparing 100,000 new math and science teachers by 2021. We’ve secured more than $1 billion of private investment for improving STEM education, and commitments from college and university leadership to help underrepresented students earn STEM degrees. There’s also something that’s harder to measure, but every bit as important: all the young people, including minorities and young women, who are more excited than ever about pursuing their passions for STEM.   

 One of the new traditions I’ve started as president is the White House Science Fair. We ought to celebrate science fair winners at least as much as Super Bowl winners. And when young people are excited about science, technology, engineering, and math, that’s not just good for them. That’s good for America. We want the next game-changing industry or life-saving breakthrough to happen right here in the United States.

PS: Do you consider yourself a nerd and, if so, what’s your nerdiest pastime?

BO: Well, my administration did write a pretty detailed response to a petition, explaining why we wouldn’t build a real-life Death Star, so I’d like to think I have at least a little nerd credibility built up.

What’s remarkable is the way “nerd” is such a badge of honor now. Growing up, I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who read SpiderMan comics and learned how to do the Vulcan salute, but it wasn’t like it is today. I get the sense that today’s young people are proud to be smart and curious, to design new things, and tackle big problems in unexpected ways. I think America’s a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid—and that’s a good thing!

PS: You also put heavy emphasis on developing innovation and entrepreneurship. How do you make Silicon Valley happen all over the country?

BO: Innovation and entrepreneurship are already happening all over the country. New technologies like cloud computing, big data, and 3-D printing are lowering barriers to entry. And you can now collaborate with partners around the country or across the world, practically at the speed of light. So no matter where you live, there has simply never been a better time to launch an idea and bring it to scale in America.

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