Decoding the Science in Obama's State of the Union Speech

Big speech. U.S. President Barack Obama used his annual State of the Union speech yesterday to make a pitch for greater federal investment in research and action on climate change.

White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Last night, President Barack Obama offered a list of his priorities for a second term that sound very familiar, including urging Congress to take action to create jobs, avoid impending budget cuts, and reform the nation's immigration system. It also included pleas to protect biomedical research funding, create 15 "hubs" to pursue innovative manufacturing technologies, and expand "investments in science and innovation" to levels "not seen since the height of the space race."

Not surprisingly, many science groups—which often lobby hard to get their issues highlighted in the annual address—were pleased by the shout-outs. "We're gratified that he stressed the brutal impact of sequestration, across-the-board cuts, to medical research and reminded the country of goals within the reach of science, such as the promise of an 'AIDS-free generation' and cures for deadly and debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's," Mary Woolley, head of the biomedical research advocacy group Research!America, said in a statement that echoed many others.

Like most State of the Union speeches, however, this one offered few details (especially on how to fund the initiatives). But two items, in particular, made ScienceInsider want to know more.

One was Obama's claim that "every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy." Says who?

The other was Obama's warning that he won't wait long for Congress to "get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change. … [I]f Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy." What, exactly, could Obama do with executive power alone?

Genome Economics—The genome claim stems from a May 2011 study by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, an offshoot of the Columbus, Ohio-based consulting giant. That study used some generally accepted economic models to estimate the overall economic impact of the $5.6 billion (in 2010 dollars) that the federal government spent on the Human Genome Project between 1988 and 2010.

It concluded that the direct, indirect, and "induced" economic spinoffs had helped create more than 3.8 million "job-years," generated $244 billion in personal income, and resulted in $78 billion in tax revenues. All told, the ripple-effect "output" totaled $796 billion. While such numbers are often criticized as being a bit rosy, the $5.6 billion spent to produce $796 billion in output roughly equates to Obama's $1-to-$140 figure (the report says 1:141).

The study was conceived by Janet Lambert, a vice president for government relations at Life Technologies, a company based in Carlsbad, California, that makes gene sequencers and other products used in molecular biology. Lambert, who is based in Washington, D.C., often works with universities and others to promote federal funding for research. "It was my belief that the Human Genome Project represented a great, memorable example of a general point we had been making: that federal investments in research have a great payoff not just for human health but the economy in general," she tells ScienceInsider.

The company's nonprofit foundation green-lighted the Battelle study in 2010, and "it has become the gift that keeps on giving—it just keeps getting cited," Lambert says. But she was "greatly surprised"—and delighted—when it popped up in Obama's speech last night. (She doesn't know how.)

There is some political irony to its use by Obama, however, given that the company's chair and chief executive officer is Gregory Lucier, a major donor to Republican candidates. Lucier contributed $50,000 to Mitt Romney's presidential bid and nearly $31,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2012, according to campaign finance records. But he and the company's political action committee have also backed Democrats known for supporting federal spending on research, including Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Lambert notes. "It has long been a bipartisan issue and should be a bipartisan issue," she says.

Climate Policy—Obama's climate warning to Congress was in part political theater. Nobody expects the current Congress to approve the kind of emissions-control program he advocated. Instead, the president appeared to be explaining his next move to a national audience: I will act on climate because Congress won't.

Even without congressional backing, Obama can take "plenty of other steps that are politically viable and will make a difference," said Eileen Claussen, head of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia, in a statement released today on a new report from her group. The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments have sweeping regulatory powers under current law, she and other analysts note. And her statement outlines some specific areas where they could act.

For example, using existing authorities, the Administration could:

* Build on its new rules doubling the fuel economy of passenger vehicles by adopting stronger fuel economy and emissions standards through 2025 for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

* Finalize carbon emission standards for new power plants, and develop standards for existing plants (source of a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions) allowing states to use a range of implementation measures, including market-based approaches.

* Step up efforts to reduce emissions of short-lived climate forcers such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

* Set new energy efficiency standards for household appliances and industrial equipment.

* Strengthen climate resilience by helping states, businesses and communities prepare for more extreme weather and other climate impacts.

* Shrink the federal carbon footprint by improving energy efficiency and expanding the use of clean energy in defense and other federal operations.

The administration could also re-engage with China, India, and other major greenhouse gas emitters in the hope of reaching a global deal on climate. And it could use foreign aid programs to assist developing nations with efforts to avoid major emissions increases, for example, by helping them install wind, solar and hydro energy sources.

Congress could block some of these administrative efforts by withholding funds or barring certain activities, but Obama officials are betting that the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House won't be able to forge a unified front. And outside forces, including companies, state governments, and environmental groups, can always challenge new rules and regulations in court. But the White House, which has already notched several major legal wins on climate issues, appears ready to join those battles as they arise.