One way Obama has supported scientists

By giving me a free blog post.  From his address to the National Academy of Science (full text here):

A few months after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, before Gettysburg would be won and Richmond would fall, before the fate of the Union would be at all certain, President Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences.  Lincoln refused to accept that our nation’s sole purpose was merely to survive. He created this academy, founded the land grant colleges, and began the work of the transcontinental railroad, believing that we must add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery … of new and useful things” …

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree…

I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development … This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history…

The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.  That’s why the private sector under-invests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society…

We double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, a primary source of funding for academic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supports a wide range of pursuits – from improving health information technology to measuring carbon pollution, from testing “smart grid” designs to developing advanced manufacturing processes. And my budget doubles funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science which builds and operates accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, high-energy light sources, and facilities for making nano-materials…

Our future on this planet depends upon our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution. And our future as a nation depends upon our willingness to embrace this challenge as an opportunity to lead the world in pursuit of new discovery…

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.  Our progress as a nation – and our values as a nation – are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy…

We know that the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether or a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet, in high school, more than twenty percent of students in math and more than sixty percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields…

My budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago. In the decades since, it’s remained largely the same size – even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path…

I had only one quibble with the speech.  The President says: “The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago.”  True enough—but they depend not only on SR but even on GR, which was “put to paper” around 1916.

Predictably, coverage of this speech has concentrated on (1) some remarks about swine flu, and (2) a trivial incident where Obama got ahead of his TelePrompter.  Clearly, he has a ways to go before matching the flawless delivery of our previous leader.

I’m back in Boston, having returned from my trip to Berkeley and to the Quantum Information Science Workshop in Virginia.  I understand that the slides from the QIS workshop will be available any day now, and I’ll blog about the workshop once they are.  (Sneak preview: it turns out that more quantum algorithms should be discovered, battling decoherence is important, and interdisciplinary insights are needed—but there were actually some pretty spectacular results and open problems that I hadn’t heard before.)

I’d also like to blog about two books I’m reading: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and First Principles by Howard Burton (about the founding of the Perimeter Institute, and the first scientific history I’ve ever read for which I was there when a lot of it happened).  Then again, if enough people discuss these books in the comments section, I won’t have to.

41 Responses to “One way Obama has supported scientists”

  1. Anonymous Numero Uno Says:

    Prof. Aaronson … you are simply awesome!

    What are those open problems? Do tell!

  2. John Sidles Says:

    Obama says: Lincoln refused to accept that our nation’s sole purpose was merely to survive.

    Thank you, Mr. Obama! And as for invoking the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln—as Obama has done in this NAS speech and many other policy speeches—mighty few leaders (in either party) have ever gone wrong in doing this.

    Increasing American investment in fundamental math and science is good — one wonders how we can help Mr. Obama by working to more rapidly transition our fundamental math and science into service in enterprise?

    Because this transition of science-to-practice must occur with vigor for Mr. Obama’s argument in favor of science to retain its moral and practical foundations.

    The comforting belief that “The transition from fundamental science to practical enterprise happens spontaneously!” is widespread and congenial to many, yet historically it is completely false. The history of technology development in the period between WWI and WWII is a gold mine of case studies … how many young scientists know, for example, that in 1936 the Army’s G-4 (seeing war coming) argued for the abolition of support for fundamental research, on the grounds that it could make no difference in the coming conflict?

    Thus, the the QIS/QIT community finds itself between Scylla and Charybdis: the Scylla of looking too soon for practical applications of QIS/QIT, versus the Charybdis of assuming that practical QIS/QIT applications need never be delivered.

    It will be lots of fun to see how the QIS/QIT Workshop navigates these tricky waters! Heck, it will be fun to see how our entire planet navigates these tricky waters! :)

  3. Michael Luvaul Says:

    Scott, any indication of when they plan to have all the slides available?

    BTW, your talk was both extremely amusing and yet also very informative which is a hard line to walk. (I’m the unshaven weirdo that bugged you at Saturday night’s session.)


    It is not going to be easy to walk that line and that very problem came up during the evening sessions and was discussed in detail in front of and with members of the funding agencies (apparently this is an oddity? I wouldn’t know as I’m a newbie).

  4. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: One problem I liked, due to Dorit Aharonov, was to understand the complexity of the Local Hamiltonians problem where all the Hamiltonians have to commute with each other.

    Another one is to rewrite what we know about quantum query complexity in terms of span programs. For example, give a span-program-based proof of the collision lower bound. It ought to be possible, according to this breakthrough paper by Ben Reichardt.

    A third problem—I hesitate even to mention it, since it will cause 5,000 more John Sidles effusions ;-) —oh, alright. The third problem, due to Alan Aspuru-Guzik and Seth Lloyd, is to use ideas from quantum walks to design better solar cells. Apparently, there’s a class of solar cells that are efficient for essentially the same reason the quantum walk in this paper by Childs et al. hits exponentially faster than the classical walk, leading to an oracle separation between BPP and BQP. (!!!) The obvious question now is whether, by thinking explicitly in quantum information terms, one could not only explain existing solar cells but actually design better ones.

  5. Jon Says:


    Could you say a bit more about this class of solar cells? What are they called and where can we read about them?


  6. John Sidles Says:

    LOL! Alán and Seth both appreciate (and their recent research illustrates ) that there exists an broad class of fundamental QIS/QIT ideas that are exceedingly relevant to the “Charybdis” of practical solar cell design (and to photosynthetic biology too).

    But why stop at photosynthesis? Isn’t it plainly the case, that similar fundamental ideas from QIS/QIT apply to all technologies that seek to press against quantum limits?

    And therefore, don’t the Scyllists (the advocates of pure mathematical QIS/QIT) have concrete reasons to apprehend that the Charybdists (the advocates of applied QIS/QIT) are at-risk of a shipwreck, through imprudently sailing too close to the newly-glimpsed (and immensely enticing) shores of practical QIS/QIT applications; shores that however are known to be guarded by a maze of poorly-charted reefs?

    If history supplies us with any guidance for navigating QIS/QIT’s Scylla-Charabdys channel, it is this: we are best served, in the long run, if the good ship QIS/QIT steers a course down the middle of the channel, while all hands maintain a weather eye on both shores.

    And furthermore (to adapt a lesson from both Lincoln and Obama) the QIS/QIT community can be reasonably hopeful that in sailing this middle channel—with all hands closely observing and reflecting upon both shores—the Scyllists and the Charybdists on-board will “come to be touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of their nature.”

    The medical research community steers this middle course fairly successfully—for example, we see that medical community’s Lincoln-esque “better angels” are working hard and effectively to mitigate the emerging swine flu pandemic—and there is IMHO every reason to foresee that a steering a middle course for the QIS/QIT community might eventually lead us to entertain similar global-scale ambitions, and perhaps enjoy similar global-scale successes. :)

  7. Ari Says:

    Eh, I’ll give Obama a pass on the SR vs. GR issue — he hedged with the phrase “based on,” and the key idea of “relativistic correction” is there. One could be even more pedantic, but I don’t think we’ll hear a discussion of the Schwarzschild or Kerr metrics in a presidential address anytime soon. :)

  8. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I would like to understand better what Obama means when he says that research and development should be 3% of GDP. That is more than $400 billion per year, or 80 times the size of the NSF.

    On the whole though, yeah, it was a very encouraging speech.

  9. John Sidles Says:

    Greg, isn’t Mr. Obama asking us what it means? And unless (or until) we can supply a pretty good answer—by the standards of “good answer” that his speech defined rather clearly—the 3% will not materialize.

  10. Koray Says:

    Dave Bacon was also blogging about Outliers by Gladwell, but I think he stopped.

  11. Anonymous Samaritan Says:

  12. Scott Says:

    Anonymous Samaritan: :-)

    “I’m sorry, sir—we can’t seem to find your reservation. However, if you’ll give us your confirmation code, we can easily check it for you.”

  13. James Says:


  14. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmmm … the VIrginia QIS Workshop presentations are on-line. The first one I looked at was Jonathan Dowling’s, and it was mighty sobering:

    (Slide 13)
    20 out of 25 Recent CalTech QuIT Theory PhD’s Have Not Found Tenure-Track Positions in the U.S.

    I personally worked hard to make the case that our UW College of Engineering should extend tenure-track job offers to more than one of these QIT theory graduates. It was a tough sell (both to my colleagues and to the industries that hire our graduates), and my efforts were only partially successful (interviews, but no offers).

    One lesson-learned, IMHO, is that a central strategic challenge for the QIS/QIT community is to build stronger links to the (many) industries that are pushing QIS/QIT bounds. Because without these stronger links, participation in President Obama’s science initiative arguably does not make sense for QIS/QIT.

    I will check to see whether the other presentations at the Virginia QIT Workshop provide me with much-needed new ammunition for future efforts.

  15. Mathematician Says:

    Dear Scott, Please keep the focus of your blog. You have lately been losing science to your blog and started blogging about various loosely related things. One of the ways I subscribed to your blog was because your articles were very computation-oriented. Now you no longer keep the theme. And as you might have heard, shifting topics in your blog will lose your readers.

  16. Cody Says:

    Nice excerpts. Doubling the NSF budget is a pleasing idea. Sure is a far cry from our previous leader’s inability to comprehend that intelligent design is not science and evolution is obvious. It’s like night and day.

  17. Wim vam Dam Says:

    Scott, I’m curious, how much do subscribers like Mathematician pay you to write your blog?

  18. Pat Cahalan Says:

    I hope Mathematician doesn’t visit my blog, his/her head will explode.

  19. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I encourage Mathematician to start a blog. Mathematician can blog about whatever she/he wants to, and Scott can blog about whatever he wants to. That way everyone is happy!

  20. Steve Says:


    Gladwell didn’t do his research for Outliers. He presents Chris Langan as a hyper-intelligent failure, but in reality Chris Langan is a megalomaniacal fraud who has never provided any persuasive evidence for his wild, extravagant claims about his intelligence. (I have known Chris for many years, and I can assure you that he is not even somewhat intelligent.) Don’t believe me? Read his CTMU theory of everything or watch some clips of him on YouTube.


    YouTube interviews:

    My favorite part of the YouTube interview comes at 6:50:
    “in this world if you pretend to be too much smarter than other people you’re going to get in trouble”

  21. Scott Says:

    Scott, I’m curious, how much do subscribers like Mathematician pay you to write your blog?

    Wim: Hmm … nothing so far, but if he/she wants to fork over $1000, my next post will be solely about computational complexity. Willing to negotiate.

  22. John Sidles Says:

    It’s a truism that folks who are proud of their sense of humor quite often have little or none (political and religious ideologues are particularly susceptible).

    Similarly, theorists in general—and QIS/QIT folks in particular—are proud of their high intelligence and willingness to tackle the “tough problems”—and so we have to ask, what evidence can we cite for our high opinion of ourselves?

    I have to say, that IMHO, Jonathan Dowling’s (humorous) talk served gently yet effectively to “skewer” (in Scott’s phrase) some of the pomposity of the QIS/QIT community.

    Dr. Dowling could have communicated his message in other ways, for example as a guidance, by quoting David Petraeus:

    In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should be an execute aggressively.

    or as a jeremiad, by quoting William Blake:

    A dog starved at his master’s gate
    Predicts the run of the state.

    So we are led to the interesting question, what factors induced Dr. Dowling to formulate his talk as a series of jokes and humorous stories?

    I will note that among all the QIS Workshop speakers, Dr. Dowling is among the best-qualified to supply QIS/QIT guidance; not only is he a well-regarded physicist, but according to his web page, he has served on

    numerous Department of Defense (DoD) Review Boards and Organizational Committees; in particular for the Army Research Office (ARO), the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), and the National Security Agency (NSA).

    Is it a bad sign for QIS/QIT sign when a person of this background chooses to frame tough questions as a series of jokes and funny stories? Does it signify that the speaker does not expect that the audience has good answers to hard questions … or to the tough challenges that were raised in CinC Obama’s speech?

  23. Adam Wolbach Says:

    RE: John Sidles’ comment

    Are the jobs out there for QIT Theory PhD graduates largely academic? Can anyone offer examples of (interesting) industry jobs?

  24. John Sidles Says:

    Adam Wolbach asks: Can anyone offer examples of (interesting) industry jobs?

    Consulting my BibTeX database, the Q-Chem corporation provides a well-defined model for QIS/QIT enterprise. And Q-Chem’s PCCP (well-written) 2006 review article Advances in methods and algorithms in a modern quantum chemistry program package is packed with interesting QIT results and open problems … the sponsor list is interesting too.

    Q-Chem’s business model provides a concrete example of what Alán Aspuru-Guzik said at the QIS Workshop:

    (p. 5) Without computer-based simulation, the material culture of late-twentieth-century microphysics is not merely inconvenienced—it does not exist. Nor this is only true for particle detectors; machines including the huge plasma-heating Tokamaks, the complex fission-fusion nuclear weapons, the guidance systems of rockets are inseparable from their virtual counterparts – all are bound to simulations. ——Peter Galison

    The same simulation-dependence will surely be true (and to an even greater extent) of 21st century systems and synthetic biology.

    So to answer your question, Adam … It’s quantum all over, baby! :)

  25. rrtucci Says:

    A Washington newpaper has just published a story about the Vienna conference

  26. Geordie Says:

    bob @25: Why don’t you stop poking the beehive and write some applications for us? You are right but who cares. Life is too short.

  27. Scott, Don of Famiglia Aaronsoni Says:

    rrtucci: If you’re not careful, you might wake up one morning to find a |beheaded⟩+|non-beheaded⟩ horse in your bed … just trying to protect you.

  28. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … wasn’t The Godfather basically the story of a traditional social organization’s search for new enterprise models? Hey, that *does* sound kinda “familiar”! :)

  29. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott, if the horse is in a pure state, then whether or not it is beheaded it will have to be frozen, in fact shielded from the environment at zero temperature.

    It would certainly be unprecedented to wake up with a advanced cryostat in your bed, large enough to hold a horse inside with unknown connectivity. But it might take days to figure out that you should run screaming from the room.

  30. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In other words, leave it to Scott to make you an offer you can’t understand.

  31. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    No, wait, even better: “I’ll make you an offer you can’t observe!”

  32. Stas Says:

    To second the wish for more technical topics, I’ve just created a googlegroup Algebraic studies for P vs NP. I plan to do there something like a self-governed class on abstract algebra based on well-recognized textbooks if I find enough interested people (Kurt once did it well with comp-sci-theory on yahoogroups.) The ultimate goal is to fully understand Ketan Mulmuley’s work and possible future algebraic approaches to complexity and to be able to contribute to them.

    For now, I’ve posted there a possible naive question on Hilbert’s Nullstellensatz connection to NP vs co-NP and I’ll be grateful if you take a look…

  33. John Sidles Says:

    Stas, I am curious why your page is named “Algebraic Studies for P vs. NP”, instead of “Geometric Studies for P vs. NP” … noting that Ketan Mulmuley’s page (yes, we engineers read it!) uses the word “geometric” throughout?

    From a system engineering point of view, the conjoint title “Studies in Algebraic Geometry for P vs. NP” might be best of all, because (empirically speaking) the natural language of simulation codes—both classical and quantum—is mainly “algebraic”, and yet the motivation and understanding for designing these algorithms is mainly “geometric”.

    As this point-of-view becomes more widespread, the result is that mighty few areas of information theory are safe from the inroads of practical simulation science … which is good! :)

  34. Stas Says:

    Algebra and geometry are equivalent due to algebraic geometry :)
    Seriously, I do not want to limit the group interest to Mulmuley’s work and algebraic geometry. There are many other interesting algebraic questions related to complexity (like strengthening Lovasz’s theta function with approximation of the cone of copositive matrices), I hope to have a discussion on them as well.

  35. John Sidles Says:

    Stas, you might be interested in the NSF’s just-released WTEC review of Simulation-Based Engineering & Science (SBE&S) … it looks like the NIH is about to invest on the order of a billion dollars into this research area.

    The WTEC SBE&S report a long read … 429 pages, but since it is stuffed with words like “quantum” and “algorithm” (as a PDF search shows), the appears to be plenty of QIT overlap. Chapter 6, by Martin Head-Gordon, echoes all the same themes as Alán Aspuru-Guzik (Alán’s slide 10 is a direct quote).

    It highly regrettable, and a needless setback for the QIT community, that the phrases “information theory” and “algebraic geometry” appear nowhere in the SBE&S report.

    Because isn’t there is a strong case to be made (IMHO) that these two disciplines are fundamental to SBE&S? This is especially clear if we consider their unification into “informatic algebraic geometry”, defined as the study of informatically compressed descriptions of the geometry of algebraic varieties associated with dynamical systems.

    Informatic algebraic geometry can be defined (IMHO) as the mathematical discipline that is born when one reflects upon the simulation not specifically of the systems that nature and technology provide, but studies more generally those mathematical properties that are informatically universal to simulation in general.

    Informatic algebraic geometry is the motivating reason that my favorite passages (by far) in Nielsen and Chuang are Section 8.2′s discussion of the ambiguity of the operator-product sum representation. To borrow Terry Tao’s language, this ambiguity provides the gauge invariance that makes informatic algebraic geometry “fly” as a mathematical discipline (as well as being the keystone theorem of quantum error correction, of course).

    From this point of view, Ketan Mulmuley’s program is yet another example of the wonderful mathematics that generally arises, when we use the emerging toolset of informatic algebraic geometry to study obstructions to efficient simulation!

  36. rrtucci Says:

    This WTEC report is an excellent reference John. Computer Programming, Simulation, Industry, Engineering and non-academic jobs are not dirty words in that report. And compare a picture of the “chair” of that report with a picture of John Preskill :)

  37. John Sidles Says:

    Rtucci, you are right that Sharon Glotzer (Chair) and Sangtai Kim (Vice Chair) both have exceedingly interesting biographies.

    If we grant that Alán Aspuru-Guzik was right in asserting “Biology is Quantum” at the QIS Workshop, then these SBE&S folks definitely *should* have included someone like John Preskill on their panel.

  38. Clemens Says:

    America, I am SO jealous right now! Unfortunately the electoral system in Germany prevents visionary guys like Obama to elected (but to be fair, it also prevents nuts like Dubya to get elected…)

    My graduate studies gear towards their end, in a few months I (hopefully) will be simulating ion trap quantum computers and I do hope that our Government will provide enough funding for our kind of research… There was quite a saddening article in The Spiegel (one of Germany’s most influential weekly news magazines) describing how politicians backed off promises they made about research funding :-( I guess our politicians just want to survive while US politicians want to make history…

  39. John Armstrong Says:

    Unfortunately the electoral system in Germany prevents visionary guys like Obama to elected (but to be fair, it also prevents nuts like Dubya to get elected…)

    This needs to be an Umeshism. “If you’ve never elected a complete moron to be the Leader of the Free World, who is controlled from the shadows by a creepy cross between Darth Vader and the Penguin with a torture fetish, you’re _____”

  40. Clemens Says:

    …you’re not voting often enough?
    …you’re not an American?
    …your vote didn’t get count?

  41. Bilety lotnicze Says:

    Talk is one thing – lets see what the outcome will be. My guess that with the current situation it will be quickly brushed under the table. OR as ususal they will take money from other fields and clamp down on any talk about it.