Obama, the nerd in chief, unveils $300 million for science

The president confesses he is a "science geek" at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Alfred Ng
Marguerite Reardon
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President Obama, a self-proclaimed "geek," checks out some of the technology at the White House Frontiers conference.


President Barack Obama wants to cement his legacy as the technology president.

Obama, a self-proclaimed Trekkie, has used the final months of his presidency to double down on technology, and what it means for the future of the nation and the world.

At an event Thursday, the president unveiled more than $300 million in federal and private money earmarked for supporting science and technology. The total includes $165 million for smart city initiatives, like efforts to reduce traffic congestion.

Another $70 million is dedicated to researching Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression and other diseases; $50 million for small-satellite technology that enables high-speed internet; and $16 million for improved medical care through the Precision Medicine Initiative.

The one-day conference, dubbed The White House Frontiers Conference, was held in Pittsburgh, a city that has already seen self-driving Uber cars hit its streets and is a leader in health care research. Obama also cited the city, historically linked to the country's steel industry, as a leader for investing in children's computer science education.

"It is that thing that sets us apart, that ability to imagine and hypothesize and then test and figure stuff out and make things and make them better," Obama told the audience, which included researchers, business leaders, technologists, philanthropists and students.

It's no secret Obama, who some have called the most tech-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson, is a fan of gadgets and technology. In fact, the president also referred to himself as a "science geek."

Held jointly with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, the conference is designed to explore technology and innovation at levels ranging from the personal to the interplanetary. It touched on topics including health care innovation, precision medicine, smart cities, artificial intelligence and clean energy. It also covered space travel, including a manned mission to Mars that could happen by 2030.

Obama called for developments to technology like deep-space habitats to get humans on Mars within the next two decades. He'll be racing against Elon Musk 's SpaceX, which has a mission to Mars of its own.

The president focused on providing the next generation with the tools needed to achieve moonshots. He also called for openness in science and technology, pointing out that the six US Nobel Prize winners this year are immigrants. He applauded government initiatives that encourage young women and minorities to join the field.

"We want to make sure they feel a confidence about so much of the technology and information revolution and science that is transforming the lives around them," Obama said.

He called the US the "engine of innovation around the world."

Obama said that public and private investment in science and technology was crucial to revitalizing economies and communities.

"That's what science does," he said. "Imagine the breakthroughs that are around the corner."