President Obama speaks at the Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, Oct, 13, 2016.
Barack Obama won’t be president for much longer. But while he still is, he’s seeking to cement his legacy as a booster of science and technology. Appearing today at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, Obama suggested that support of science has set one candidate apart from the other in 2016’s divisive presidential election. He pushed the seemingly non-controversial idea that only through science can the US keep extending the frontiers of human knowledge and accomplish more as a country. As his presidency comes to an end, Obama clearly hopes that the next president will lead the way on government backing for science. Or, more plainly: please don’t mess this up.
“We don’t listen to science just when it fits our ideologies,” Obama said. “That’s the path to ruin.” Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us to space, Obama said, the US didn’t deny that Sputnik was up there. “That wouldn’t have worked! We acknowledged the facts and we built a space program almost overnight—and then beat them to the moon.” But in the 21st century, climate change denialists are putting propaganda ahead of reality. “I get so riled up when I hear people willfully ignore facts,” Obama said.
Though he didn’t mention him by name, Obama was clearly undercutting GOP candidate Donald Trump, who in this election season has so often pushed ideas that reflect the reality he wants to live in—science be damned. Some of the world’s greatest innovations can also serve the cause of obfuscation, Obama said. “Everything on the Internet looks like it might be true,” he said Obama. “In this political season we’ve seen you just say stuff. So everything suddenly becomes contested.”
Obama also implicitly pushed back against Trump’s anti-immigration stance, pointing out that the six US scientists and researchers who just won Nobel Prizes were all immigrants. Science and technology in fact need to become more inclusive in the US, especially for young women and people of color. Science is not just for “boys in hoodies,” Obama said. “We want Jamal and Maria sitting next to Jimmy and Johnny. We don’t want them overlooked for a job of the future.”
Opening up science and technology is just part of the work Obama said was still to left to do. The president said he only got two terms to do what he could, which drew boos from the crowd. “But that’s all right! We run our leg and we hand off the baton.” The question is whether the person who takes the handoff carries the baton forward or chucks it in the trash.
There are two kinds of people in Washington, DC, says entrepreneur Dean Kamen. There are the policy experts, whom he calls cynics. And there are the scientists, whom he deems optimists.
Kamen, speaking at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, places himself in the latter camp. Unlike policy wonks and politicians who see diseases like Alzheimer’s or ALS as unstoppable scourges, Kamen points out that previously terrifying diseases were all toppled by medical innovation. The plague, polio, smallpox — all were civilization-threatening epidemics until experimental scientists discovered new ways to combat them.
If that sounds like the kind of disruption that the tech industry has unleashed across the rest of the world, that’s no accident. Kamen, the founder of DEKA, a medical R&D company, says that the same trends that have empowered our computers and phones and communication networks will soon power a revolution in health care. He says that medical innovation follows a predictable cycle. First we feel powerless before a disease. Then we seek ways of treating it. Then we attempt to cure it.
Take a look at how we think about renal failure. It took decades to develop the process of dialysis, in which patients travel to a clinic and hook themselves up to machines. It treated the medical condition but was, Kamen asserts, “a horrible way to live.” Insulin pumps took an unwieldy and expensive process and made it cheaper and easier. Now, Kamen says, it’s time to move past the treatment phase and develop a cure. “How about if you can grow a new kidney?” Kamen asks. “There’s 300,000 people waiting for them.”
The Time Is Now
The Frontiers conference is a one-day symposium intended to encourage Americans to use technology to face the biggest challenges of the next five decades–medicine, climate change, space travel, artificial intelligence. Kamen, who says he employs 500 engineers, paints the current moment in historical terms. “If you think of the phases of the golden age of humanity,” he says, “once we started to understand the basic laws of physics and made engineering rules to apply them, we saw exponential growth of energy and power use–what we call labor.” Last century we saw a similar breakthrough in our understanding of electricity. Now, he says, we are ready to tackle another frontier. “Medicine is the last,” he says, “because it is the most sophisticated and complex.”
As we collect more data and learn more about our bodies, Kamen says, our health will benefit from the same kind of rapid innovation that has defined the tech industry. “We’re going to get to the fundamental laws of life,” Kamen says. “You’re going to be leveraging engineering in a way that’s unimaginable today.”
As biology and technology intersect, Kamen says, “I think you’ll start to see life sciences start to embrace engineering and start to grow at the same exponential pace we’ve seen in communications.” When you buy a new computer, he points out, you don’t expect it to perform as well as last year’s model; you expect it to be better, faster, capable of doing more. Soon, you will have that same expectation of your own body. You will expect to play better tennis at 80 than you did at 50, as your knees are upgraded to the latest model.
That’s why, Kamen says, the cynics will be proven wrong about the threat posed by today’s diseases. As long as scientists continue to innovate, we will soon see Alzheimers or heart disease or the Zika virus as no more of a threat than we think of polio or smallpox. “Despite what all the pundits say as they look fearfully backward,” he says, “we the innovators need to look optimistically forward.”