Disclaimer: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has asked me to clarify that, although this post will contain a photograph of me standing near the President of the United States, nothing in the post, or in Shtetl-Optimized more generally, is endorsed in any way by the White House or the President. You know, just in case you were wondering.
It’s a good thing that I chose a career in science rather than in public relations.
Within one century, government-sponsored scientific research radically changed the ways that human beings exist on this planet. Electronics are possible because of the quantum revolution of the 1920s, a revolution that many of us are still trying to understand the full implications of. While it benefited from a government monopoly, Bell Labs was able to invent and/or commercialize the transistor, the laser, the fiber-optic cable, and the communications satellite. (As soon as Congress opened the telecom market to competitors, Bell Labs’ capacity to innovate was permanently crippled.) Computers, the Internet, cell phones, nuclear energy, DNA testing, and widespread vaccination are a reality today largely because of a partnership between academic scientists and their governments, in the US and elsewhere, that started in earnest during World War II and has continued to the present.
I sort of imagined that, if you were reading this blog, then you knew all of that, and also knew that I knew it. But I was mistaken. In writing about what seemed to me like a slam-dunk issue for any thinking person—namely, protecting the 0.18% of the United States federal budget that goes to the National Science Foundation—I somehow managed to make enemies not only of the NSF’s opponents, who skewered me as an ivory-tower elitist, but also of many of its supporters, who either didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate my attempts at gallows humor.
Fortunately, today I have a happy story involving the NSF. As Lance Fortnow kindly mentioned a month ago, I had the honor of being included in this year’s PECASE (Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers) class. Here I followed in the footsteps of Adam Smith and Sean Hallgren, two theoretical computer scientists from Penn State (and very nice people) who won last year. The PECASE is given for a combination of research and outreach, so there’s little doubt this blog played a role, in addition (I hope!) to the research and teaching that I sometimes do in my spare time. There’s no money in the PECASE, just a fun trip to DC for ceremonies and a photo-op with the President.
The day (last Monday) started with a ceremony in the Department of Agriculture building. There was a Color Guard, then a beautiful live performance of the national anthem, then short speeches, then a presentation of awards that resembled a high-school graduation, then a reception where they served these really nice smoked-salmon wraps, as well as chocolate truffles that were on sticks like lollipops. The awardees’ families were all there with us, but unfortunately, only the awardees themselves were cleared to enter the White House complex for the presidential photo-op. There was no Air Force One pickup to get to the White House: we took the Metro. We arrived at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is to the left of the White House, adjacent to the West Wing. There were Christmas decorations all around.
After going through a security check, we were ushered into a room that seemed specially designed for presidential photo-ops. It had staggered platforms for standing on, with curtains in the background.
I was allowed to bring my cellphone, but it didn’t work inside the White House. There was a strict no-photography rule.
We were called to pose for the photo in order of height: people over 6ft in the back row, then people over 5ft 10in in the next two rows, etc. I was lucky to be short enough to land a spot in the second-to-front row. We stood there for about fifteen minutes while waiting for the President to arrive.
The organizer from the Office of Science and Technology Policy warned the women in the front row that last year, the President put his arm around them for the photo—so they should be prepared!
At 1:55pm, we received word that the President would arrive at 2:05pm, and at 2pm, we received word that he was on his way over. Finally, at 2:05 on the dot, he bounded into the room and the PECASE awardees erupted into applause. My MIT colleague Manolis Kellis bellowed “Mr. President!”, which made the President laugh.
The President looked and sounded pretty much the same as on TV. I was happy to see that his lip looked fine. He shook hands with everyone in the front row, assuring everyone else that they’d get a chance to shake his hand later as well.
(I’m the one wearing a tie with a little drawing of the MIT Stata Center on the bottom.)
The President spoke for about five minutes, while Secret Service agents stood unobtrusively in the corners of the room. Here were his main points, as I remember them:
- He couldn’t be more proud of us.
- Science and technology are extremely important for the nation’s future.
- He’s been fighting for more science funding. (At this, the PECASE awardees burst into applause again.)
- Science will be a highlight of his next State of the Union address. (Hey, you read it here first.)
- He understands that the PECASE award is not just for research but also for outreach and education, which is great.
- As someone with two daughters, he’s especially happy to see so many female PECASE winners.
- He feels so honored to be able to pose for a photo with us. (At this, everyone laughed.)
- He made a reference to “young people, which most of you still qualify as” (causing more laughter), and said he’s expecting us to “produce” and win some Nobel prizes.
As the rows cleared out, the President shook hands with everyone in turn. A few people said Merry Christmas. I just said “thank you,” and he said “thank you” back. Then I quickly moved away, since I had a cold and was worried about giving it to him. (Also, my hand was sweating for some reason—maybe because I was wearing a suit, which was definitely one of the more unusual aspects of the day for me!)
Immediately after the photo, we were escorted out of the Eisenhower Building. (Apparently the PECASE awardees in some previous years got a tour of the White House, but we didn’t.)
Later in the afternoon, there was a reception at NSF headquarters for the 19 PECASE winners whose research was sponsored by NSF (the remaining 66 were sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Defense Department, NASA, or other agencies). After opening remarks by Subra Suresh, the new NSF director and previously Dean of Engineering at MIT, each of the awardees gave a 3-minute speech about his or her work. I really enjoyed listening to the other 18 talks (as for my own, I spoke too fast and probably lost people).
At the risk of annoying earnestness, I’d like to thank:
- My NSF program officer (and all-around favorite government official), Dmitri Maslov.
- Every reader of this blog who ever said anything positive (or at least non-negative) about it.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy, for putting together an awesome day (and inducing me to wear a tie even though no one was being married, buried, or bar-mitzvahed).
- President Obama, for supporting science and education even in the face of determined opposition.
- My fellow American taxpayers, for bankrolling the NSF. May all who receive grants strive to be worthy of them.
- My family.