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President Barack Obama has set the goal of devoting more than 3 per cent of the US gross domestic product (GDP) to science research and development.

That amount would be the largest-ever US investment in science research and innovation, Obama said during a speech on Monday to the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.

"We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race," Obama said in his speech.

"A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation," he said. But the federal science spending which helped fuel the country's prosperity and success has since declined from the "high water mark," of the early US space program, Obama told the agency.

According to the latest figures, 3 per cent of the US GDP would be about $415.2bn. The US currently spends about 2.6 per cent of GDP on research.

"There are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree," he told the agency. "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before."

Obama plans to double the budgets of key science agencies including the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. The US government is also launching the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) to carry out "high risk, high reward" research on clean energy, an issue Obama named as "this generation's great project."

Obama said through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - and with the support of congress - that his administration is already providing the largest single boost to investment in basic research in American history. He told the agency that thoroughly funding science is important in the current recession and for the future.

"Just think what this will allow us to accomplish," Obama said. "Solar cells as cheap as paint, green buildings that produce all the energy they consume, learning software as effective as a personal tutor, prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again, an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. We can do this."

Obama said the private sector generally under-invests in basic science research because the pay-off is often long-term and sometimes never. That's why it's important for the public sector to make the financial commitment, he argued.

"Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society," Obama said.

The President said the recent outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and the United States illustrates the importance of scientific research. Yesterday, the US government declared a public health emergency because of the flu, and many boffins are brewing up fears of a global pandemic.

Obama called the outbreak a "cause for concern," rather than a "cause for alarm," stressing that there hasn't been a new site of infection found in the past 24 hours.

"The Department of Health and Human Services has declared a Public Health Emergency as a precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively," Obama said.

A transcript of the speech is available here. An audio and video recording of the meeting is available at the National Academies website. ®

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