Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • 9 Ways We Geeked Out About Science and Technology in 2014

    2014 may go down in history as the geekiest year ever here at the White House.

    Over the past 12 months, we’ve welcomed makers, coders, gamers, Nobel Prize winners, student scientists, and broadcast meteorologists to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and we've adorned our halls with robots, 3D printers, and science projects. We've continued to gather top expert-geeks online to discuss a range of topics such as asteroids, superhero science, the science of cooking, and extreme weather (including one dialed in from the bottom of the ocean).

    This year, the President and his Administration continued momentum on a range of science, technology, and innovation priorities that promise to benefit American citizens — from steps to unleash troves of government data as fuel for innovation, to releasing the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever of the domestic impacts of climate change, to telling the untold story of women in science and technology.

    Here are some science and technology highlights from 2014:

    1. President Obama became the first President to write a line of code.

    Watch on YouTube

  • Honoring Grace Hopper

    Life is too short to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.

    -Grace Hopper

    Few people have taken the above lesson to heart more than “Amazing” Rear Adm. Dr. Grace Hopper, one of the longest-serving U.S. Naval Officers and a pioneer in the fields of mathematics and computing, whose legacy has continued to live on past her death in 1992.

    Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR, Special Assistant to the Commander, Naval Data Automation Command.

    That’s why earlier this month, during Computer Science Education Week, we at the White House looked back on Hopper’s remarkable life, and honored her with a special event display in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC.

    Grace Hopper was born in New York City on December 9, 1906, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1928, and went on to earn her PhD in mathematics from Yale University in 1934 (a notable achievement for a woman during that era).

    Hopper taught mathematics at Vassar from 1931 to 1943 before joining the Naval Reserve in 1943 as a volunteer in the newly established Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program. She graduated first in her class of 800 officer candidates and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she soon became a key member of the staff for the Mark I computer system. In 1947, Hopper famously identified the first computer “bug” when she traced a Mark I glitch back to a moth that was caught in a relay wire, shorting out a circuit…and inspiring the term “debugging” used ever since for solving problems with a computer program’s execution.

    Grace Hopper sits with fellow members of the team developing on the UNIVAC I, a team Hopper joined after completing her work on the Mark I.

    Over the rest of her 43-year career with the Navy, Hopper went on to make many other seminal contributions. A crowning achievement was her development of computer languages written in English or other human languages – rather than mathematical notation – and the compiler that ‘translated’ these programming languages to machine code. Particularly notable were Hopper’s contributions to the common business computer language known as “COBOL,” which is still in use today. Throughout it all, Hopper was a tireless advocate for engaging young people and students in computer science and related science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.

    On December 9, Hopper’s birthday, the White House unveiled a special display case in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building showcasing computing artifacts from Hopper’s life. The display, which was on loan for several weeks from the Curator Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command, included early computer components used by the Naval Data Automation Command, where Hopper worked from 1976 until her retirement from the Navy in 1986. The display also contained wires used by Hopper during lectures on the nanosecond. Each 11.8-inch long wire represented the maximum distance electricity can travel in one billionth of a second. 

    The display case containing computing artifacts from Hopper’s life.

    As noted above, Hopper famously said that life is too short to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. Through her work, she was a big part of giving us both the fundamental computer tools and the inspiration needed to break out, investigate, and solve challenging problems facing our world.

    Erie Meyer is a founding member of the U.S. Digital Service.

    Hannah Safford is a SINSI Fellow at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • Investing in Breakthrough Learning Technologies at the Department of Education

    Technology is changing and improving many aspects of our daily lives, our economy, and our Nation. But these positive advancements aren’t coming quickly to our education sector, despite the fact that we know technology can be a powerful tool and equalizer for teachers and students. One reason for that is the lack of robust technology infrastructure in our nation’s schools. Through the President’s ConnectED Initiative and similar efforts, the Administration has made great progress in addressing this important issue.

    A critical complementary investment we must also undertake is dedicated research and development (R&D) on breakthrough education technology—which is why the President has called for an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED). Experts at the U.S. Department of Education are exploring how we might learn from the experiences of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other cutting-edge R&D programs in pursuit of educational breakthroughs. Read more about this exciting area of innovation on the Department of Education blog, here.

    Kumar Garg is Assistant Director for Learning and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • Innovating to Protect our Waterways

    The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is today announcing that a coalition of Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and United States Geological Survey (USGS), is launching the Nutrient Sensor Challenge—an open-innovation competition to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable sensors that can measure nutrients in aquatic environments. 

    Nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – are essential for plant growth and for the production of food and livestock feed.  Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways, however, can be harmful to ecosystems and human health, and costly to the economy.

    The Challenge launching today, which has been shepherded by agencies working closely with states, universities, and private-sector organizations, seeks to address a critical environmental problem by tapping into the expertise and creativity of our Nation’s innovators. This approach is consistent with the Administration’s broad use of public incentive prizes and open innovation to help address some of society’s toughest problems.

    Because nutrients originate from a number of sources, including legacy contributions from years past, understanding where nutrients come from and how they move in waterways is a complex task requiring the sustained collection of high-quality data over many years. 

  • Enhancing Biosafety and Biosecurity in the United States

    On August 18, 2014, we issued a memorandum titled “Enhancing Biosafety and Biosecurity in the United States,” urging all U.S. government departments and agencies that work with infectious agents to take immediate and long-term steps to enhance safety and security in research facilities to minimize the potential for biosafety and biosecurity incidents.

    All federal departments and agencies that possess, use, or transfer human, animal, or plant infectious agents or toxins were urged to perform a Safety Stand-Down, to include an immediate sweep of their facilities to identify Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) and ensure proper registration, safe stewardship, and secure storage or disposal. During the Safety Stand-Down period, senior leaders were also urged to devote significant, dedicated time to review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols, as well as to develop and implement plans for sustained inventory monitoring.

    Federal departments and agencies embraced this effort. As part of their Safety Stand-Down activities, they conducted facility sweeps; carried out comprehensive safety, security, and inventory activities; and captured best practices and plans for strengthening national biosafety and biosecurity systems in the future. 

    During the Safety Stand-Down period, 11 U.S. government departments and agencies conducted sweeps at more than 4,000 facilities across the nation and in U.S. facilities abroad, including more than 40 million samples. As a result of this comprehensive review, departments and agencies reported 27 instances in which identified BSAT were stored in areas not registered with the Federal Select Agent Program, adjudication for each instance, and final disposition for the material. In reviewing the findings, there was no indication of human exposure, including staff or the general public, to any of these agents or toxins. 

  • Launching Disasters.Data.Gov to Empower First Responders and Survivors with Innovative Tools and Data

    Strengthening our Nation’s resilience to disasters is a shared responsibility, with all community members contributing their unique skills and perspectives. Whether you’re a data steward who can unlock information and foster a culture of open data, an innovator who can help address disaster preparedness challenges, or a volunteer ready to join the “Innovation for Disasters” movement, we are excited for you to visit the new disasters.data.gov site, launching today.

    First previewed at the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo Day, disasters.data.gov is designed to be a public resource to foster collaboration and the continual improvement of disaster-related open data, free tools, and new ways to empower first responders, survivors, and government officials with the information needed in the wake of a disaster.

    A screenshot from the new disasters.data.gov web portal.

    Today, the Administration is unveiling the first in a series of Innovator Challenges that highlight pressing needs from the disaster preparedness community. The inaugural Innovator Challenge focuses on a need identified from firsthand experience of local emergency management, responders, survivors, and Federal departments and agencies. The challenge asks innovators across the nation: “How might we leverage real-time sensors, open data, social media, and other tools to help reduce the number of fatalities from flooding?”