Obama: America should be as inspired by energy, Internet as moon landing

In a town hall with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, U.S. president Barack Obama underscored the need for STEM education, smart healthcare systems and innovation through immigration.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

U.S. president Barack Obama conducted a town hall meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto, Calif. on Wednesday, underscoring the need for math and science education.

Speaking in response to a question from the audience, Obama said America needs to do a better job at STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields to stay competitive on the global stage.

He said (emphasis mine):

I want people to feel the same way about the next big energy breakthrough or the next big Internet breakthrough, I want people to feel the same way they felt about the moon launch -- that that’s how we’re going to stay competitive for the future. And that’s why these investments in education are so important.

He added that the innovation coming from Silicon Valley -- of which Facebook is a part -- is the exception, not the rule in most of the country.

Emphasis mine:

Government alone can’t do it. One of the things every time I come to Silicon Valley that I’m inspired by but I’m also frustrated by is how many smart people are here, but also frustrated that I always hear stories about how we can’t find enough engineers, we can’t find enough computer programmers. You know what, that means our education system is not working the way it should, and that's got to start early.

Obama used the town hall to address a number of topics, from the economy to healthcare to national debt to immigration, as it pertains to national security from the standpoint of a creative economy.

On immigration: "I think about somebody like an Andy Grove of Intel. We want more Andy Groves here in the United States.  We don’t want them starting companies -- we don’t want them starting Intel in China or starting it in France.  We want them starting it here."

On healthcare (emphasis mine):

Let’s take the example of health IT.  We’re in Silicon Valley, so we can talk about IT stuff.  I’ll try to sound like I know what I’m talking about. [Laughter.] The health care system is one of the few aspects of our society where a lot of stuff is still done on paper. The last time you guys went to a doctor’s office or maybe to your dentist’s office, how many people still had, like, to fill out a form on a clipboard?  Right?  And the reason for that is because a large chunk of our provider system is not automated.  So what ends up happening is you may go to your primary care physician; he does some basic tests, he sees something of concern, he refers you to a specialist.  You go to the specialist; he’ll do another test.

You’re getting charged, or your insurance company is getting charged, for both those tests, as opposed to the test that was taken by your primary care physician being emailed to the specialist.  Or better yet, if it turns out that there may be three or four specialists involved, because it’s a difficult diagnosis -- this is all hypothetical; you look very healthy. [Laughter.] But let’s say there were a bunch of specialists.  What would be ideal would be if you get all the specialists together with the primary care physician the first time you’re seen so that you’re not paying for multiple visits as well as multiple tests.

That’s not how it works right now.  Now, part of it is technology.  So what we did in the Affordable Care Act, building on what we did with the Recovery Act, is try to provide incentives to providers to start getting integrated, automated systems. And it’s tough because the individual doctor may say to him or herself, I don’t want to put out the initial capital outlay; that’s expensive even though it may make my system more efficient later on.

So providing some incentives, some help, for the front end investments for a community hospital or for individual providers so that we can slowly get this system more effective, that’s priority number one.

And finally, energy (emphasis mine):

If you’re driving 50 miles to work and that's the only job you can find, and you can’t afford some hybrid so you’re stuck with the old beater that you’re driving around that gets eight miles a gallon, these gas prices are killing you right now.

And so this is the reason why I’ve said that it is so important for us to invest in new approaches to energy. We’ve got to have a long-term plan. It means investing in things like solar and wind, investing in biofuels, investing in clean car technology. It means converting the federal fleet 100 percent to fuel-efficient vehicles, because we’re a huge market maker. Obviously it turns out that I’ve got a lot of cars as president. [Laughter.]

And if we’re out there purchasing electric cars and hybrids, that can help boost demand and drive down prices. Continuing to increase fuel-efficiency standards on cars; increasing oil production but in an intelligent way. I mean, those are all hugely important.  And by the way, we can pay for it.

These aren't new points, of course -- Obama outlined these extensively during his State of the Union address earlier this year, as well as during a special speech on the topic of energy in March.

It's highly debatable whether the chief executive of the United States has the power to make these changes. The real question: is this talk enough to inspire -- or is it difficult to unify a nation without a common enemy?

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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