US President Barack Obama has pledged to increase the country’s spending on research and development to create an “Apollo era” push for research into renewable energy.

Speaking today at the 146th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington DC, President Obama outlined a wide-ranging plan for science and technology including improving teaching of science in schools to reducing carbon emissions.

President Obama, who is only the fourth US president after George Bush senior, Jimmy Carter and John F Kennedy to address an annual meeting of the NAS, said that federal funding for science in the US has fallen by half in the last 25 years as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Energy targets

Announcing new funding from the $787bn recovery and reinvestment bill, Obama said that he will guarantee that the US will spend at least 3% of its GDP on Research and Development (R&D) in the future. Last year, in contrast the US ploughed back 2.7% of GDP into research.

There are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, but I fundamentally disagree. Science is as important now, than it has ever been before Barack Obama

“There are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, but I fundamentally disagree,” Obama said. “Science is as important now, than it has ever been before.”

Obama also pledged to create an “Apollo era development” into renewable energy sources and added that energy “is our generation’s great project”. He also said this commitment could lead to a host of developments, which include making “solar cells as cheap as paint”.

Obama announced funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) — included in the recovery and reinvestment bill — that will perform high-risk, high-reward research into energy, similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that does research into military technology. He also said the US will aim to reduce carbon pollution by 80% by 2050 and double the nation’s capacity to produce renewable energy.

Challenging young people

During his 40-minute speech, Obama also said that 15–year-old Americans ranked 21st in the world league table for science education and that 60% of chemistry and physics students are taught by teachers with no formal qualification in those areas.

He pledged to increase the number of teachers in US schools who have a background in science or maths — although did not set any targets — and said US states that increase the performance of science students would be able to apply for extra federal funding. “Young people are ready to rise to the challenges of today,” Obama said, while noting that the average age of people in the control centre when Apollo 17 – the last manned lunar landing — was launched was 26.

Creating ‘green jobs’

Meanwhile, writing in this week’s edition of Science, the physicist John Holdren, who is President Obama’s science advisor, gives his top priorities for science and technology for the Obama administration.

In his editorial, Holdren, who introduced Obama at today’s meeting, says science and technology should be used to drive economic recovery as well as creating “green jobs”. He also says that the US should carry out R&D on alternative energy sources to “reduce energy imports” as well as verifying “the old and new arms control and non-proliferation agreements for national security”.

Holdren backed up his statements at the NAS meeting. “Obama wanted to bring science back into the centre of how the government thinks, what it says and what it does,“ Holdren told delegates, “and he is doing it.”