Remarks by the President in Presenting National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Nov. 17, 2010
Location: Washington, DC

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much, everybody. Wonderful to see you. Please, everyone sit down, sit down. We've got a lot of work to do here. (Laughter.) Have a seat.

Welcome to the White House. It is a great honor to be joined by so many leading researchers and innovators. I want to give some special thanks to a few members of my Cabinet, members of Congress who are here today: Secretary Gary Locke, our Commerce Secretary is here. Members of Congress -- we have Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Bart Gordon of Tennessee. Please give them a big round of applause for their great work. (Applause.)

We also have NASA Administrator Bolden who is here. (Applause.) Charlie. Dr. Subra Suresh, who's the Director of our National Science Foundation, is here. (Applause.) Mr. Dave Kappos, who's the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office. (Applause.) He was here. He may have had some work to do. (Laughter.)

Dr. Patrick Gallagher, who is the Director of our National Institute of Standards and Technology. (Applause.) And Dr. Larry Strickling, Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (Applause.)

Now, the achievements of the men and women who are onstage today stand as a testament to the ingenuity, to their zeal for discovery, and to the willingness to give of themselves and to sacrifice in order to expand the reach of human understanding.

All of us have benefited from their work. The scientists in this room helped develop the semiconductors and microprocessors that have propelled the Information Age. They've modeled the inner workings of the human mind and the complex processes that shape the Earth's climate. They've conducted pioneering research -- from mathematics to quantum physics -- into the sometimes strange and unexpected laws that govern our universe.

Folks here can also claim inventions like the digital camera, which has revolutionized photography -- as all these folks back here will testify. (Laughter.) As well as superglue, which, in addition to fascinating children -- (laughter) -- has actually saved lives as a means of sealing wounds.

And the men and women we celebrate today have helped to unlock the secrets of genetics and disease, of nanotechnology and solar energy, of chemistry and biology -- breakthroughs that provide so many benefits and hold so much potential, from new sources of electricity to new ways of diagnosing and treating illness.

Along the way, many of these folks have broken down barriers for women and minorities who've traditionally been underrepresented in scientific fields -- but obviously are no less capable of contributing to the scientific enterprise.

Just as an example, at the start of her career, decades ago, Esther Cornwell [sic] was hired as an assistant engineer. But soon after she was told that this position wasn't open to a woman. She had to serve as an engineer's assistant instead. Of course, that didn't stop her from becoming a pioneer in semiconductors and materials science.

It's no exaggeration to say that the scientists and innovators in this room have saved lives, improved our health and well-being, helped unleash whole new industries and millions of jobs, transformed the way we work and learn and communicate. And this incredible contribution serves as proof not only of their incredible creativity and skill but of the promise of science itself.

Every day, in research laboratories and on proving grounds, in private labs and university campuses, men and women conduct the difficult, often frustrating work of discovery. It isn't easy. It may take years to prove a hypothesis correct -- or decades to learn that it isn't correct. Often the competition can be fierce -- whether in designing a product or securing a grant. And rarely do those who give their all to this pursuit receive the attention or the acclaim they deserve.

Yet it is in these labs -- often late at night, often fueled by a dangerous combination of coffee and obsession -- (laughter) -- that our future is being won. For in a global economy, the key to our prosperity will never be to compete by paying our workers less or building cheaper, lower-quality products. That's not our advantage. The key to our success -- as it has always been -- will be to compete by developing new products, by generating new industries, by maintaining our role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. It's absolutely essential to our future.

And that's why we're here today, and why I look forward to events like these. I believe one of the most important jobs that I have as President is to restore science to its rightful place. (Applause.) That means strengthening our commitment to research. It means ensuring that our government makes decisions based on the best evidence, rather than politics. It means reforming and improving math and science education -- and encouraging the private sector to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and engineering.

And it means fostering a climate of innovation and entrepreneurship -- from incentives in clean energy to tax breaks to start-ups. I'd also point out that's not just a job for government. Creating this climate depends on all of us, including businesses and universities and nonprofits.

One of the most important ways in which we can restore science to its rightful place is by celebrating the contributions of men and women like all of you. Because that's how we'll excite a new generation to follow in your footsteps. That's how we can spark the imagination of a young person who just might change the world. I was reminded of how important this is just a few weeks ago. We held a science fair here at the White House. Some of you may have heard about it.

We welcome all the time championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories. I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fairs and robotic contests and math competitions -- because those young people often don't get the credit that they deserve. Nobody rushes on the field and dumps Gatorade on them -- (laughter) -- when you win a science award. Maybe they should. (Laughter.)

So I got to meet these incredibly talented and enthusiastic young men and women. There was a team of high school kids from Tennessee that had designed a self-powered water purification system. We had robots running all over through the State Dining Room. (Laughter.)

The last young person I spoke to was a young woman from Texas -- she was 16 years old. She was studying biology as a freshman, decided she was interested in cancer research, so taught herself chemistry during the summer; then designed a science project to look at new cancer drugs, based on some experimental drugs that are activated by light. They could allow a more focused treatment that targets the cancer cells while living, healthy cells remain unharmed.

She goes on to design her own drug; wins the international science competition. And she told me that she and her high school science teacher are being approached by laboratories across the country to collaborate -- (laughter) -- on this potential new cancer treatment. This is a true story -- 16 years old, taught herself chemistry. Incredibly inspiring.

And at a time of significant challenge in this country -- at a moment when people are feeling so much hardship in their lives -- this has to give us hope for the future. It ought to remind us of the incredible potential of this country and its people -- as long as we unlock it; as long as we put resources into it and we celebrate it and we encourage it, we embrace it.

You know, Carl Sagan once said, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." That way of thinking -- that combination of curiosity and skepticism, the sense of wonder and the willingness to test our assumptions -- it's what, at root, we are honoring today. It's what has spurred countless advances and conferred untold benefits on our society. And it's an idea that has driven our success for as long as we have been a nation.

And I'm confident that this spirit of discovery and invention will continue to help us succeed in the years and decades to come. And our country owes every one of our laureates with us today a big measure of thanks for nurturing that spirit and expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.

So it is now my privilege to present the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.

(The citations are read.)

Yakir Aharonov. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Yakir Aharonov, Chapman University, for his contributions to the foundations of quantum physics and for drawing out unexpected implications of that field ranging from the Aharonov-Bohm effect to the theory of weak measurement.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Stephen J. Benkovic. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Stephen J. Benkovic, Pennsylvania State University, for his research contributions in the field of bioorganic chemistry, which have changed our understanding of how enzymes function and advanced the identification of targets and strategies for drug design.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Esther M. Conwell. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Esther M. Conwell, University of Rochester, for her broad contributions to understanding electron and hole transport in semiconducting materials, which helped to enable commercial applications of semiconductor and organic electronic devices, and for extending her analysis to studying the electronic properties of DNA.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Marye Anne Fox. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Marye Anne Fox, University of California San Diego, for her research contributions in the areas of organic photochemistry and electrochemistry, and for enhancing our understanding of excited-state and charge-transfer processes with interdisciplinary applications in material science, solar energy conversion, and environmental chemistry.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Susan Lee Lindquist. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Susan Lee Lindquist, Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for her studies of protein folding, demonstrating that alternative protein conformations and aggregations can have profound and unexpected biological influences, facilitating insights in fields as wide-ranging as human disease, evolution, and biomaterials.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Mortimer Mishkin. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Mortimer Mishkin, National Institutes of Health, for his contributions to understanding the neural basis of perception and memory in primates, notably the delineation of sensory neocortical processing systems, especially for vision, audition, and somatic sensation, and the organization of memory systems in the brain.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

David B. Mumford. The 2009 National Medal of Science to David B. Mumford, Brown University, for his contributions to the field of mathematics, which fundamentally changed algebraic geometry, and for connecting mathematics to other disciplines such as computer vision and neurobiology.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Stanley B. Prusiner. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Stanley B. Prusiner, University of California San Francisco, for his discovery of prions, the causative agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other related neurodegenerative diseases, and his continuing efforts to develop effective methods for detecting and treating prion diseases.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Warren M. Washington. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Warren M. Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research, for his development and use of global climate models to understand climate and explain the role of human activities and natural processes in the Earth's climate system, and for his work to support a diverse science and engineering workforce.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Amnon Yariv. The 2009 National Medal of Science to Amnon Yariv, California Institute of Technology, for foundational contributions to photonics and quantum electronics, including the demonstration of the semiconductor distributed feedback laser that underpins today's high-speed, optical fiber communications.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Harry W. Coover. The 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Harry W. Coover, Eastman Chemical Company, for his invention of cyanoacrylates -- novel adhesives known widely to consumers as "super glues" -- (laughter) -- which today play significant roles in medicine and industry.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Helen M. Free. The 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Helen M. Free, Miles Laboratories, for her seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry through development of dip-and-read urinalysis, which gave rise to a technological revolution in convenient, reliable, point-of-care tests and patience self-monitoring.

(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)

Steven J. Sasson. The 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Steven J. Sasson, Eastman Kodak Company, for the invention of the digital camera, which has revolutionized -- (laughter) -- which has revolutionized the way images are captured, stored, and created, creating new opportunities in commerce, education, and global communication.

THE PRESIDENT: This picture better be good. (Laughter and applause.)

Federico Faggin, Marcian E. Hoff Jr., and Stanley Mazor. The 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Federico Faggin, Marcian E. Hoff Jr., and Stanley Mazor, Intel Corporation, for the conception, design and application of the first microprocessor, which was commercially adopted and became the universal building block of digital electronic systems, significantly impacting the global economy and people's day-to-day lives.

(The medals are presented.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me make two closing points. Number one, I feel really smart just standing up here with these folks. (Laughter.) I think it kind of rubbed off on me. (Laughter.)

Number two, I want to congratulate our military aide for being able to read all those things. (Laughter and applause.) I want to assure you he practiced a lot. (Laughter.)

And finally, let me just once again say to all the honorees who are here tonight, you have truly revolutionized the world in ways that are profoundly important to people in their day-to-day lives, but also help to create those steps in human progress that really make us who we are as human beings. And so we could not be prouder of you, could not be more grateful to you for your contributions.

Please give them one last big round of applause. (Applause.)

Everybody, enjoy the party. (Laughter and applause.)