A few months after his inauguration, President Obama was showing so much passion for science and scientific integrity that one observer characterized him as "almost strident" on the issue. I've always thought that was the wrong phrase.
The description put a negative spin on what I consider to be one of the president's more endearing qualities -- I can't think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama.
Indeed, a couple of years ago, the president announced that, from now on, there will be an annual White House Science Fair. Obama explained at the time, "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be."
President Obama at the 2010 White House Science Fair
The president will back up that talk at the White House today.
President Obama is living up to his 2009 pledge to use the White House to honor achievers in science as much as in athletics and entertainment -- no matter how young the achievers may be. Today he's hosting the second White House Science Fair -- which is essentially a fair of fairs, honoring awardees and leaders in dozens of separate competitions and programs aimed at nurturing the brightest students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the collection of disciplines known as STEM in education circles.
Obama will also reportedly announce a plan to seek $80 million from Congress for a new Education Department competition to support math and science teacher preparation programs.
In the larger context, the science fair itself is a terrific gesture that sends a worthwhile signal. As Jonathan Cohn noted last year, "I'm sure this is not the first group of accomplished student innovators to win White House recognition. But I don't recall past presidents giving the event the trappings of a sports championship visit. And while it's just a public relations event, it also sends a broader message about the value this administration and its allies place on intellectual achievement."
America's future depends on our willingness to make a real commitment to innovation, science, research, and intellectual pursuits. The more science fairs, the better.