Obama keeps faith in science and warns of cyber threats

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief

"IT IS our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country - the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."

In adopting the phrase "unfinished task" as a signature motif for his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama signalled a return to familiar themes. For those who care about investment in science, that was a reassuring message. 
The fight against global warming and the importance of technology to protect national security also got high billing. On the latter, Obama signaled that hacking skills, rather than kilotons, are increasingly a crucial currency, promising a new focus on combating cyberattacks - paralleled by negotiated cuts to the US nuclear arsenal. 

In a combative speech designed to counter Republican opponents who want to cut the budget deficit by curbing spending on Obama's priorities - including education and research - the President made the case for continued investment in innovation.
"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries ten times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."
The estimate of a 140:1 return on investment in genomics comes from a 2011 study by the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. While the precise numbers from that analysis have been questioned, the importance of continued innovation to America's future economic competitiveness has been stressed in multiple reports, notably from the US National Academies. 
"Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy."
Obama called on Congress to pass new legislation to counter threats from hackers backed by hostile governments. That won't be easy: last year, a bill that would have demanded that companies meet minimum standards for cybersecurity, and report if they are attacked, foundered amid complaints that it would impose large costs on US businesses. 

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