Pittsburgh bears fruits of Obama's agenda on science, technology
A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub is using $12 million from the federal BRAIN Initiative to reverse-engineer the mind in hopes of making us and machines smarter.
The National Institutes of Health selected UPMC to be one of four institutions to sequence 1,000 genomes, leading to more personalized and precise medicine.
And federal dollars have gone to support the joint University of Pittsburgh-Carnegie Mellon University Medical Scientist Training Program, allowing students like Alexis Chidi to pursue medical and doctorate degrees while working to improve treatments for people with chronic liver disease and cancer.
“With any luck, we'll be the next generation of innovators, bridging the gap between clinical work in hospitals and research in the labs,” said Chidi, 27, of the South Side.
Pittsburgh has been a major recipient and participant in President Obama's technology and innovation initiatives during his two terms.
The president will seek to cement his legacy and chart a course for the future when he hosts the first White House Frontiers Conference on Thursday at Pitt and CMU. Chidi, in her final year of the intensive eight-year program, will introduce Obama.
“There are so many things happening today that people couldn't have even imagined 10 years ago,” Chidi said. “And many of them are happening in Pittsburgh.”
The one-day conference will explore technology and innovation on the personal, local, national, global and interplanetary levels and include about 100 speakers and panelists. The White House will announce during the conference further funding, initiatives and public-private partnerships to advance innovation.
“This president is proud of his legacy in science, technology and innovation. I think he's done more than any president in history to emphasize how science, technology and innovation can advance our goals in every part of the national agenda,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
During a 2014 visit to Pittsburgh, Obama pledged federal resources to help develop and support maker spaces while touring TechShop in Bakery Square; and in 2011, he launched the National Robotics Initiative, a $70 million promise to support research in robots, at the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.
“What the president has done is mandated some priorities and, in some cases, mandated some urgency with them,” said Sanjiv Singh, a CMU Robotics Institute researcher and the CEO of Bloomfield-based Near Earth Autonomy. “Innovation is tough. ... You want the government to invest in technologies before the private sector picks up on them, and you want regulations that won't get in the way.”
The president, however, could have done more, some insist.
Rob Atkinson, president of the Information, Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, said Obama used the White House to effectively advocate and praise science, technology and innovation, but he did little to pressure Congress to increase funding to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health or other arms of the government responsible for federal spending on research and development.
The federal government invested almost $200 billion a year in research and development between 2000 and 2009. However, from 2012 to 2014, federal spending contributed about $88 billion a year, according to research by the Information, Technology and Innovation Foundation.
“The president could have called for larger budgets for science and technology,” Atkinson said. “The U.S. federal government is spending less on research and development as a percent of our GDP than at the launch of Sputnik.”
Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, praised Obama's openness to tech and innovation but was disappointed he didn't address immigration challenges to university researchers who can't get visas to stay in the country after their schooling is completed.
“And as a result, we have a brain exit of some of the best and brightest,” Russo said.
Aneesh Chopra, who the president tapped in 2009 as the nation's first chief technology officer, said the president will be remembered as someone who understood the technology industry and invited it into the White House and the federal government.
“Almost unequivocally,” Chopra said, “this president has hard-wired the role of technology, innovation and data in solving not only some of the largest national but some of the largest international problems of our day.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.