What does make America great? A scientist’s perspective

It’s been just over a week since we took to the streets to March For Science. And what an incredible day it was — because you showed up at more than 600+ marches!!!

Why am I so passionate about this topic? Here’s the video of my speech and the full text (you can also find the speeches from Baratunde Thurston, Adam Savage and many others on the channel). I’ve also annotated the speech with a few images from the day and questions that I received (e.g., what was the shirt that I was wearing?).

So, now what?

We marched. Now we act. As I said in my speech, science can’t wait. We can’t wait. We need scientific advancements now for my kids, your kids, and our kid’s kids. Here’s what you can do!

  1. Stay engaged! We need you to join the movement by signing up at www.marchforscience.com.
  2. Make your voice heard! You have an awesome voice and we heard it loud and clear at the march. So make it heard by calling your local representatives, senators, and any other public leader. Call your school board and make sure they teach evolution. Write letters, op-eds, etc.
  3. Share your story! Tell the world about how science has impacted you and why we need science.
  4. Don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important. There’s going to be lots of noise. There will be drama. There will be alternative facts. We have to stay engaged and focused on things that have impact.
  5. See something, say something. We always hear things like I’m not good at math or science. Or boys are better than girls at chemistry. Or climate change is made up. If you hear it, call it out. If we’re silent, we’re complicit.
  6. Make it a team sport! Get a friend engaged. Too often we don’t bring along those that had a hard time with science. Those that are intimidated by science. Those that were frustrated with math. Those that had a bad experience in a class. Don’t leave them behind. Don’t talk down to them. We need them on the team! Share your passion with them. Help them see why we should all care about science. Be an advocate!

What does make America great? (full speech text)

Look at all of you who showed up!

Thank you for coming out to support SCIENCE!

It’s an interesting time we’re living in right now… there’s this running question of what makes America great. So, I want to talk with you about why science makes America great. And I’m going to do it through the stories of a few amazing Americans from all over the country that I had a chance to talk to when I was in the Bush Administration and most recently at the White House in the Obama Administration.

My daughter’s sign at the SF March For Science

One of my favorite things over that past two years was when we turned the White House into a science fair. We invited kids from all around the country to show off their research. And wow. These projects are the epitome of what makes America great.

Take for example, Nathan, who was 15 at the time and built machine learning and AI algorithms to detect genetic mutations that are likely to cause cancer.

Simon-Peter, Maya, and Grayson who in their early teens designed a new prosthetic leg that will allow an amputee to hike, manage uneven terrain, and (my favorite part) even skateboard!

Or Olivia, who at 17, developed a rapid, portable, and inexpensive diagnostic test for detecting the Ebola virus.

These kids are from every walk of life. From every part of America. Spend five minutes with them and you’ll leave the conversation with an incredible inferiority complex.

It’s not just those kids, look at all the kids out here. The boys and the girls. You are our future scientists. You are the ones who will lead us forward to the stars, who will understand the deep mysteries of physics, unlock the beauty of math, discover the next medical breakthrough, and invent the next new type of material.

My friend, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, often reminds me that security is like air. You only know you need it when you don’t have it. The same is true about science.

The basis of our country’s national and economic security is science and technology. And it has been true since the founding of our great nation.

This is the nation where both the Continental Congress and our first president, George Washington, created the Army Corps of Engineers. Their mission — to provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.

This is the nation that enacted the National Aeronautics and Space Act establishing NASA. Creating a path forward to win the race to the moon and today continues to lead our efforts to understand the Earth and universe above.

This is the nation that established the National Institutes for Health — the NIH — to drive the next set of breakthroughs and making sure that we have the best medical care in the world. An agency that — through aggressive investment — is the gold standard and the beacon of hope to so many.

This is the nation that led that way in protecting our water and making sure we have clean air by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency — the EPA — where more than half of EPA’s employees are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists.

This is the nation that established colleges and universities that are the envy of the world.

This is the nation that created the internet.

The government didn’t do this alone. It sparked the fire, but industry, academia, and public-private partnerships nurtured the flame. Examples? GPS, the discovery of DNA and genetic sequencing, robotics, and even data science. And we’re seeing it happen right now with artificial intelligence and self driving cars.

But let me tell you this. We can’t take this for granted. We’ll only know that we’ve lost the lead when we don’t have it. The investments and sacrifices that the generations before us made are the ones we’re benefiting from today. That includes those who have come from all around the world as immigrants and refugees to make this nation stronger. In 2016, Nobel Prizes were given to 6 researchers and scientists at American universities. The common thread? All 6 were born outside of the United States.

The shirt I was wearing at the SF March for Science — for more check out my naturalization speech

To those who have dedicated your lives to science and innovation, thank you. To those who have served in our armed forces or in public service, you have my eternal gratitude. To those that teach, thank you for everything you have done and will continue to do. You are our secret ingredient. Our superpower has been, and will continue to be, nurturing the best and the brightest to work on the greatest challenges of the day.

Science and engineering can’t wait. Slowing down isn’t an option. Kids in Flint, Michigan still don’t have clean water. The climate is changing. The next pandemic could be around the corner. We have a growing world population that we needs to be fed and educated. Our national defenses will continue to depend on innovation. And Cancer and rare diseases continue to take too many lives. It’s one of the reasons that so much of my time at the White House was focused on finding the next generation of medical cures through the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot.

One of those people I met was Jennifer Bittner who wrote to the President — yes we did read the letters you sent. And here’s the first thing you need to know about Jennifer. She’s a beautiful person. A wonderful wife to her husband Rod and a phenomenal mother to their son and the child that is on the way. She is a force of nature. Here’s what Jennifer said in her own words:

I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer that had spread to my liver, lungs, adrenal gland, spleen, ovaries, spine, hips, ribs, femur, scapula, clavicle, and many other bones. One doctor said I’d be in hospice within three months. While it’s hard to put into words how grateful I am to have had every single moment of this wonderful life the past few years, it’s certainly not easy. I’ve been on chemotherapy or other treatment every single day. I’ve endured multiple surgeries and radiation, as well as the anxiety of weekly tumor markers and scans every three months. My treatment side effects are challenging and at times, debilitating. Despite all of this, the average life expectancy of someone with metastatic breast cancer is just three short years.

Three years is FAR too short when you’re not even halfway through life. RESEARCH is absolutely critical to extending and improving the lives of people with cancer — especially now that we are on the precipice of some incredible medical breakthroughs such as immunotherapies. … That’s why it’s so critical that research be fully funded. We are so close but most of us can’t wait much longer.”

Here’s the thing, if we don’t go faster, Jennifer doesn’t get to see her kids learn how to ride a bike, read, or be in a class play. Her kids will be robbed of the chance to have a mother. Talk to any of the scientists out there and they’ll tell you that Jennifer is right, we can go faster. Talk to any patient and they’ll say that same thing as Jennifer — we must go faster.

Cancer doesn’t wait. Rare diseases don’t wait. Pandemics don’t wait. Our kids can’t wait. Finding cures requires investment in all the sciences. Math, biology, physics, chemistry, material sciences, computer science, sociology, psychology, ecology, and even data science.

We owe it to all the Jennifer Bittners out there. Because one of those Jennifers could be one of our loved ones.

When we come together as a nation; when we focus as a community; and when we are relentless in our determination to support ALL the sciences, we will keep science in its rightful place leading our country forward. Forward for a positive future for my children. Your children. The world’s children. And our children’s’ children.

Science can’t wait. Let’s get to work.

May you all live long and prosper.

-dj