President Obama has said, repeatedly and with great enthusiasm, that the White House Science Fair is one of his “favorite things all year long.” As the annual event wraps up this afternoon – the last Science Fair of the Obama era – it’s easy to believe him.
Saving the planet, treating Ebola and a garbage sucking robot are just a few of the big ideas from the more than 130 incredibly bright students headed to the White House for the Sixth Annual White House Science Fair on Wednesday.President Obama began the science fair back in 2010 with the idea that intellectual creativity should be recognized and honored with a White House visit in much the same way as star athletes who receive similar nods.
There’s plenty of information about the participants, and former exhibitors, on the event’s official site.
Following up our previous coverage, I know how easy it is to be cynical and pessimistic about the future, and to assume that the nation’s best days are behind us, but the young people who attend the White House Science Fair are so genuinely extraordinary that it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the next generation.
As for President Obama, I remember in his first year when he announced the creation of this event. He explained at the time, “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”
And he’s kept his word.
A few months ago, I made the case that Obama has set a high bar when it comes to pro-science presidential leadership. In his first inaugural address, Obama subtly acknowledged that support for science had lagged in the years before his election, but he also made a specific vow: “We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”
I don’t imagine anyone would disagree that he’s followed through on that commitment, and today’s event is emblematic of a larger trend.
As longtime readers may recall, a few months after Obama took office, Time magazine published a piece that said the president showed so much enthusiasm on science, he was “almost strident” on the issue.
The negative connotation of the phrase struck me as a mistake. The fact that Obama has demonstrated a real passion, in word and deed, in support of the sciences is something to be celebrated.
Indeed, two months after his first inauguration, when the president reversed the Bush/Cheney restrictions on stem-cell research, Obama issued a memorandum addressing the importance of scientific integrity itself. The Associated Press reported at the time:
“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said. “It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”He said his memorandum is meant to restore “scientific integrity to government decision-making.” He called it the beginning of a process of ensuring his administration bases its decision on sound science; appoints scientific advisers based on their credentials, not their politics; and is honest about the science behind its decisions.
I don’t know who’ll win this year’s election, and whether or not he or she will keep the White House Science Fair going. Either way, however, it’s probably fair to say it’ll be a long time before we see a president as pro-science as Barack Obama.