Obama says he has his eye on swine flu threat

The president refers briefly to the health emergency in an address to scientists. He vows to invest 3% of the nation's gross domestic product to scientific research and development.
By Mark Silva
April 28, 2009
Reporting from Washington -- In the midst of a government-declared public health emergency involving "emerging cases" of swine flu, President Barack Obama said today that he is closely monitoring a situation that poses no cause for alarm.

At the same time, the president said this morning in a planned address to the National Academy of Sciences, the obligation to cope with situations such as the outbreak of swine flu points to the need for a renewed commitment to an American investment in scientific research.

The president, citing the race to place an American on the moon in the 1960s as "the high-water mark" of the U.S. commitment to scientific research, pledged today to commit at least 3% of the nation's gross domestic product to research. "If there was ever a day that reminded us" of the importance of that, he said, it is this day.

"We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu," Obama said, only briefly addressing an outbreak for which the federal government on Sunday declared a public health emergency. "This is obviously a cause for concern ... but it is not a cause for alarm.

"I'm getting regular updates on the situation from the responsible agencies," the president said.

The Centers for Disease Control is providing regular updates on the situation, with at least 20 cases confirmed in the U.S., though none fatal. With more than 1,500 cases of swine flu reported in Mexico, more than 100 deaths have been attributed to the disease.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also will be providing regular updates, the president said.

"One thing is clear," the president said. "Our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific community.

"This is one more example of why we cannot afford to let our nation fall behind," he said, and "that is exactly what's happening."

The space race represented "the high-water mark in national research and development," he said, but since then other nations have jumped ahead of the U.S. in their commitment to scientific education in the schools and their commitment to scientific research.

"It is not in our character, the American character, to follow," Obama said, delivering a "commitment" today to invest at least 3% of the GDP to research. "It is our character to lead."

The president struck a welcome chord when he spoke of his own commitment to science -- following in the path of an administration, the Bush White House, that was widely criticized for allowing politics to interfere with science.

Obama has overturned a Bush executive order banning federal funding for research involving new lines of embryonic stem-cell research, and his Environmental Protection Agency has moved swiftly to declare greenhouse-gas emissions, seen as a contributor to global warming, a public health threat.

"Today, of course, we face more complex challenges than we have ever faced before," Obama said, pointing to "a medical system that holds the promise of opening new cures and treatments, against a healthcare system" that holds the potential of "bankruptcy for families....

"At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science.... I fundamentally disagree," said Obama, drawing applause from the academy as he called science more crucial "than it has ever been before."


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