Remarks by the President at National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation Award Ceremony
11:30 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. (Applause.) Please, please, have a seat. Well, hello, everybody. Welcome to the White House.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re a little self-conscious because you feel like maybe everybody in the room is a little smarter than you -- (laughter) -- today you are right. (Laughter.) That's how I'm feeling -- because today it’s my pleasure to welcome a truly extraordinary group of men and women -- some of the world’s greatest scientists and researchers -- and I've got the extraordinary honor of presenting them with our nation’s highest honor for scientific and technological achievement, the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.
Now, to join us in celebrating these innovators, I want to welcome the members of Congress who are here with us. We also have Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. We've got my Science Advisor, John Holdren; National Science Foundation Director France Cordova; Deputy Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Michelle Lee, whose work helps to oversee the granting of these awards; and our National Science and Technology Medals Foundation Chair, James Rathmann.
Now, as many of you know, every year I host the White House Science Fair. These boys and girls are as young as 6 years old. Sometimes their projects are a little messy. (Laughter.) There was the cannon that fired the marshmallow into the White House wall -- (laughter) -- and left a little mark, which is still there.
Earlier this year, I also hosted the first White House Maker Faire. The participants there were a little older. And I met a giant 17-foot-tall, 2,000-pound robotic talking giraffe. (Laughter.) We had a little chat and that was unique. (Laughter.)
But the boys and girls, and all the makers and thinkers across the country who I welcome here are an inspiration. It's one of the favorite things that I have the pleasure of doing as President. They’re often at the beginning of a lifetime of asking questions, and pushing boundaries, and discovery things that hadn’t been discovered before, and innovating in ways that transform our world. And ultimately, that’s what America is about. That’s one of the things that makes America exceptional
-- this sense that we push against limits and that we're not afraid to ask questions. And when that spirit, that sense of possibility, is truly unleashed, then you get the remarkable men and women that you see here today.
Their achievements span disciplines, span industries -- there is a common thread, though, that runs through their stories. At a young age, an encouraging parent or captivating teacher was able to whet their appetite for the scientific process.
Unmatched opportunities and generous funding at American universities drew some of them here from distant shores. Because the American scientific community empowers young researchers, some of today’s honorees -- at a very young age -- conducted their own experiments, ran their own labs, published their own findings. Our country’s diversity, its infrastructure, its universities, and our willingness to take risks on new ideas made America the place to start new business and new ventures.
And the results of the work of the people we honor today have transformed our world. Because of these men and women, we can use a thumb drive to store a universe of information on a postage-sized gadget, unconnected to a power source, and have the data intact a century later.
In fact, I got a little gift here. (Laughter.) Apparently this was for my library. I was told I could store all my documents on this thing. (Laughter.) So I'm keeping it in my pocket.
We can manufacture better blood-clotting agents and water filtration systems, like those used in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Using breakthrough algorithms, we can model our planet’s future climate and the tiny valves in our own hearts. And we can treat cancer, strokes, macular degeneration. In short, because of these innovators, our lives are healthier, our economy is stronger, our futures brighter.
Today’s honorees are also a reminder of the power of perseverance. They achieved their most meaningful gains when they were optimistic in the face of skepticism and doubt, when they crept out onto that farthest limb, and equipped with scientific reason to believe in their own theories -- and because they weren't afraid to fail once in a while, they figured that eventually they’d crack open some mystery that hadn’t been solved and the world would catch up.
So one month after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Eli Harari came to America from Israel to study the effects of radiation on electronics in space. The physics he learned as a PhD student at Princeton led him to co-found SanDisk, and, eventually, to the creation and commercialization of flash storage technology. And today, his technology is in millions of portable electronic devices, which our lives would be completely different without. Certainly Malia and Sasha’s lives would be completely different without them. (Laughter.)
At the time he invented it, though, his technology was too early for consumer goods, and SanDisk almost went out of business. But with patience, he drove costs down, opened large-scale markets. Describing his experience in America, he said, “We could not have done it anywhere else in the world.”
Mary Shaw stumbled into computer science in high school, and as a college student she walked into a busy engineering building in search of the computer lab. And she says, “When I first showed up, they handed me a user manual and told me to go read it, and, silly me, I thought it was an invitation, so I did read it, and I came back.” (Laughter.)
She applied to Carnegie Mellon the same year they formed a graduate degree program in computer science, and she’s been there ever since, pioneering new ways to educate students in computer science, and converting the emerging field into a curriculum, and also textbooks used all across the nation.
Douglas Lowy and John Schiller have collaborated for nearly 30 years. And together they developed the technology that led to the vaccine to prevent the cancer-causing HPV virus. When they presented their research to drug companies, many told them that while their data looked good, a vaccine against this sexually transmitted disease just wasn’t going to work. But with the help of NIH research funding, they helped create one of the most successful preventive treatments in decades, potentially saving the lives of millions of young women and girls.
So the story -- I'm just giving you a sample -- the story of these trailblazers reflect our larger American experience -- our story of constant transformation, pushing against limits. These folks represent the spirit that has always defined us, one of restless inquiry, searching for the right solution to any problem; an inclination to dream big and to tinker and to pull things apart and put them back together again; an insistence on making our dreams come true.
As Thomas Kailath, one of our honorees today, says, “Scientists are intrinsically hopeful and believe in grand answers, and that if we work hard enough we can find some of them in our lifetime.” And that's a good phrase -- “intrinsically hopeful.” I'm intrinsically hopeful. (Laughter.) I am. (Applause.) That's who I am. That’s who we are as a people, as Americans, as a nation. We’ve had to fight to make stories like the ones here in this room not only possible, but sometimes likely.
Now, that can’t happen when half of our nation’s high schools don’t offer calculus, and more than a third of our high schools don’t offer physics. So that’s why we're going to need more science classes on the course schedule. That's why we need teachers with math and science backgrounds -- educators who can show their students how chemistry and computer science can open the door to a whole new world.
That’s why, five years ago, I launched my campaign to get more kids in STEM classes, and later set a goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers over the course of the next decade -- not just to teach, but to teach math and science. And we've partnered with 200 organizations like the Carnegie foundation in New York and AT&T to pursue that goal. Today we’re announcing that our many partners will invest an additional $28 million toward increasing the number of STEM teachers in the classroom across the country. And that's worthy of applause. (Applause.)
Four years ago, we called on business leaders from America’s leading companies to join us in this effort. And since then, this coalition has raised tens of millions of dollars to help strengthen many of our country’s most effective STEM education programs and get them broadened out across the country. And today, we can announce that over the next two years this coalition will help bring these programs to an additional one million students across America. So this is extraordinary work.
Finally, part of preserving America’s scientific edge is making sure we continue to welcome the best and brightest minds from around the world. So, Thomas Kailath came to this country from India at the age of 22, with a research assistantship that took him to MIT, and then Stanford, where he made critical contributions in information theory and statistics, and mentored more than 100 scholars along the way.
After he came here as a foreign student from Israel, Eli Harari co-founded SanDisk with two colleagues, one from India, another from China. Alexandre Chorin, whose accomplishments led to a sea change in the way a generations of mathematicians use computers, sums up his experience this way: “I came here as a foreigner on an American fellowship, received the opportunity to study at great schools and work at great universities, and have been treated as if I belonged.”
Treated as if I belonged. You do belong -- because this is America and we welcome people from all around the world who have that same striving spirit. We're not defined by tribe or bloodlines. We're defined by a creed, idea. And we want that tradition to continue. But too often, we're losing talent because -- after the enormous investment we make in students and young researchers --we tell them to go home after they graduate. We tell them, take your talents and potential someplace else.
So part of staying competitive in a global economy is making sure that we have an immigration system that doesn’t send away talent, but attracts it. (Applause.) We want them to initiate new discoveries and start businesses right here in the United States. (Applause.) So that's what I'll be talking about a little bit tonight. (Laughter.) Part of keeping America prosperous and keeping America strong. (Applause.)
So I want to congratulate these extraordinary men and women for their accomplishments. I want to thank each of you for the contributions that you’ve made to our country and the world -- your passion, your persistence, your “intrinsic hopefulness.”
And it is now my privilege to present the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.
So we're going to read some citations here.
MILITARY AIDE: Bruce Alberts. National Medal of Science to Bruce Alberts, University of California, San Francisco, for intellectual leadership and experimental innovation in the field of DNA replication, and for unparalleled dedication to improving science education and promoting science-based public policy. NATO (Applause.)
Robert Axelrod. National Medal of Science to Robert Axelrod, University of Michigan, for interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation, complexity theory, and international security, and for the exploration of how social science models can be used to explain biological phenomena. (Applause.)
May Berenbaum. National Medal of Science to May Berenbaum,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for pioneering studies on chemical coevolution and the genetic basis of insect-plant interactions, and for enthusiastic commitment to public engagement that inspires others about the wonders of science. (Applause.)
Alexandre J. Chorin. National Medal of Science to Alexandre J. Chorin, University of California, Berkeley, for the development of revolutionary methods for realistic fluid-flow simulation, now ubiquitous in the modeling and design of engines, aircraft wings, and heart valves, and in the analysis of natural flows. (Applause.)
Thomas Kailath. National Medal of Science to Thomas Kailath, Stanford University, for transformative contributions to the fields of information and system science, for distinctive and sustained mentoring of young scholars, and for translation of scientific ideas into entrepreneurial ventures that have had a significant impact on industry. (Applause.)
Judith P. Klinman. National Medal of Science to Judith P. Klinman, University of California, Berkeley, for her discoveries of fundamental chemical and physical principles underlying enzyme catalysis and her leadership in the community of scientists. (Applause.)
Jerrold Meinwald. National Medal of Science to Jerrold Meinwald, Cornell University, for applying chemical principles and techniques to studies of plant and insect defense and communication, and for his seminal role in establishing chemical ecology as a core discipline important to agriculture, forestry, medicine, and environmental science. (Applause.)
Burton Richter. National Medal of Science to Burton Richter, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, for pioneering contributions to the development of electron accelerators, including circular and linear colliders, synchrotron light sources, and for discoveries in elementary particle physics and contributions to energy policy. (Applause.)
Sean C. Solomon. National Medal of Science to Sean C. Solomon, Columbia University, for creative approaches and outstanding contributions to understanding the internal structure and evolution of the Earth, the Moon, and other terrestrial planets, and for his leadership and inspiration of new generations of scientists. (Applause.)
Family members will accept on behalf of their father, David Blackwell. National Medal of Science to David Blackwell, University of California, Berkeley, for fundamental contributions to probability theory, mathematical statistics, information theory, mathematical logic, and Blackwell games, which have had a lasting impact on critical endeavors such as drug testing, computer communications, and manufacturing. (Applause.)
Charles W. Bachman. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Charles W. Bachman, for fundamental inventions in database management, transaction processing, and software engineering. (Applause.)
Edith M. Flanigen. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Edith M. Flanigen, UOP, LLC., a Honeywell Company, for innovations in the fields of silicate chemistry, the chemistry of zeolites, and molecular sieve materials. (Applause.)
Thomas J. Fogarty. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Thomas J. Fogarty, Fogarty Institute for Innovation, for innovations in minimally invasive medical devices. (Applause.)
Eli Harari. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Eli Harari, SanDisk Corporation, for invention and commercialization of Flash storage technology to enable ubiquitous data in consumer electronics, mobile computing, and enterprise storage. (Applause.)
Arthur Levinson. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Arthur Levinson, Calico, for pioneering contributions to the fields of biotechnology and personalized medicine, leading to the discovery and development of novel therapeutics for the treatment of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. (Applause.)
Cherry A. Murray. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Cherry A. Murray, Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, for contributions to the advancement of devices telecommunications and the use of light for studying matter, and for leadership in the development of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math -- STEM -- workforce in the United States. (Applause.)
Mary Shaw. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Mary Shaw, Carnegie Mellon University, for pioneering leadership in the development of innovative curricula in Computer Science. (Applause.)
Douglas Lowy and John Schiller. National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Douglas Lowy and John Schiller, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, for developing the virus-like particles and related technologies that led to the generation of effective vaccines that specifically targeted HPV and related cancers. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Let’s give a big round of applause to all our awardees. (Applause.) We couldn't be prouder of all of you.
And I hope, for those who are watching or those who read stories or reports about this, that we're all reminded once again of the role of science and discovery and invention and reason in our lives. Sometimes -- we spend a lot of time lifting up sports heroes, and nobody is a bigger sports fan than I am. We extol the virtues of our singers and our movie stars, and I like entertainment, too. But we have to remind ourselves constantly that so much of what has set us apart economically, culturally, is our commitment to science. And we have to continue to broaden opportunities for young scientists, especially girls and minority students, to enter into the field, and we have to remind them of how exciting it is to be able to shape the world, unlock its secrets, make new stuff. That's who we are.
So, hopefully, in addition to being able to highlight the extraordinary work of some extraordinary individuals, that we're going to go out there and remind ourselves once again about why science and discovery and invention is so important. All right?
I hope all of you have a wonderful reception. I hear the food here is pretty good. (Laughter and applause.)
12:01 P.M. EST