Science rarely makes a major appearance in the president’s annual State of the Union address. Tonight’s speech by President Barack Obama maintained that tradition—but he did take a few moments in the 60-minute address to stake out a strong defense of his administration’s policies to combat climate change, and to preview a new “precision medicine” initiative that aims to tap genetic and other information to improve treatments for human diseases.
“I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine—one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” Obama said. “In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes—and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”
The White House has yet to release any other details about the initiative—such as whether it will involve additional funding for biomedical research—but it appears to refer to a rapidly growing research area also known as “personalized medicine.” The personalized approach attempts to take account of each person’s unique biological makeup to design effective treatments and avoid using those that won’t work. Knowing that a cancer tumor contains certain genetic traits, for example, can help clinicians pick the best drugs.
Obama’s reference to the approach’s value in treating cystic fibrosis appeared, in part, to be a reference to medical student William Elder Jr. of Colorado, who the White House invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama in the audience. Elder “was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was eight years old, at a time when most cystic fibrosis patients were only expected to live to early adulthood,” according to a White House statement. “But thanks to a unique collaboration between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, patients, researchers, and a pharmaceutical company, Bill, now 27, expects to live a long, full life. He benefits from a medication that targets the underlying cause of the disease for a small subset of cystic fibrosis patients.”
In addressing climate issues, Obama noted that “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does—14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.”
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act,” he continued, in a comment clearly aimed at Republican politicians who have used that line in an effort to avoid taking a position on the reliability of climate science. “Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what—I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”
“And that’s why … over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it,” Obama said. “And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure that American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement—the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”
Tonight was not the first time that Obama has spoken out on climate change in his State of the Union addresses. In last year’s speech, he flatly stated that “climate change is a fact.”
Another White House guest in the crowd was Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate activist who has focused her work on climate change’s impacts in Florida. Hammer, who came to the United States from Guatemala as a child, “has studied how the cities and regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise also have large Hispanic populations—something she learned firsthand growing up in South Florida,” according to a White House statement. Formerly a project director Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies, Hammer has consulted with Union of Concerned Scientists and now serves Florida field manager for the Moms Clean Air Force, a group seeking to “further the public’s awareness of climate change on children’s health,” the White House says in a blog post.
A third guest—who got a shoutout from Obama during the speech—was NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who later this year is slated to become the first American to attempt a yearlong stay aboard the International Space Station. His brother Mark, a former NASA astronaut who gained national attention after an assassination attempt on his wife, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–AZ), was a guest at last year’s speech.
Scott Kelly and his crewmates “will carry out hundreds of research experiments and work on cutting-edge technology development that will inspire students here at home in science, technology, engineering and math,” the White House statement says. Scientists also will compare medical data from Scott and Mark, “to gain insight into how the human body responds to longer durations in space,” information that could prove useful for planning a future mission to Mars, the White House suggests.
“Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars,” Obama said tonight. “In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain—and make sure to Instagram it.”
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With reporting by Puneet Kollipara.