Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the Intel Science Talent Search Gala

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

[As Delivered]

Thank you and good evening. Thank you, Larry, for that generous introduction. I’m just so excited to be here for such an important event here in Washington tonight.

And I want to extend my appreciation to Mike Bell and Shelly Esque and Wendy Hawkins for their great efforts to make this evening not just for our students who are a source of inspiration, but for all of us who get to participate in what is such a special moment.

I’d like to recognize Dr. Horvitz for his comments and leadership, and Rick Bates, as well.

And most of all, I just want to say congratulations and thank you to the outstanding students that make up the contestants at this year’s Intel Science Fair.

We have a few Members of Congress here tonight. Congressmen Rush Holt, our country’s leading scientist in the House of Representatives this year. Thank you, Rush, for your leadership.

And many, many members of our Administration, because we all take inspiration from you.

It is a special privilege to be here.

On Sunday, I brought my eight-year-old son Sajan and five-year-old daughter Amna to the National Geographic building to meet many of you students.

That turned out to be a great idea, because it meant I could walk from booth to booth asking very basic, naïve questions, pretending like those questions were for the benefit of my kids—knowing full well that it allowed me to actually understand what you are doing with your work and take pride in your success.

Afterwards my daughter asked me as we were walking out whether becoming a scientist means you stop being a kid.

I think there’s something to that. Because if history is any indication, you are setting out on a remarkable journey that will delight and challenge all of you and all of us.

You’ll push the boundaries of human knowledge—continuing a legacy of science and innovation that has powered our own nation’s rise and those of so many around the world.

But as you do, I hope you will maintain your youthful enthusiasm, because your willingness to see possibilities where others don’t, your willingness to insist that it is possible to create a different kind of future is what will ultimately make all the difference for all of us.

Never before has a generation of young computer scientists had such a wealth of information at their fingertips—from Google Trends data to open climate information.

With only a computer, Charles Xin Lui—a finalist that I met on Sunday—accessed an enormous bank of gene expression data and ran a high-end computational analysis to uncover a complex relationship between lupus and sclerosis.

Today, a similar focus on opening big data sets has inspired President Obama’s own executive order to ensure that the federal government make all of its data sets open to everyone around the world—free and accessible—so that we can do extraordinary things together.

As a result of the President’s commitment to open data, today farmers in Kenya are able to negotiate better prices—getting that price information on their mobile phones—and local leaders in Nepal are able to plan for floods and rainfall and avoid famine.  

And I was actually just in Nepal and saw how climate scientists were helping to provide information that will actually yield crop insurance products that can be sold to the very poorest of households—putting a safety net underneath them so that when times are bad, they don’t have to go hungry and their kids don’t have to be pulled out of school.

Never before has a generation of young inventors understood so profoundly the challenges affecting people who live in these types of unfortunate intersections between extreme poverty and extreme climate.

With a few simple tools, Joyce Blossom Kang invented a new kind of battery to capture and store energy. I was calling it a battery—and she was saying it was not quite a battery—so I apologize, it was the best I could do.

A solution to one of the biggest challenges we face in scaling up access to clean energy for hundreds of millions people who still today spend their lives living in the dark.

Today, we’re applying a similar focus to President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, designed to double access to power across Africa—helping to ensure that business can create jobs and economies can continue to grow and, most importantly, kids can read at home at night.

And never before has a generation of young researchers concentrated so strategically on designing affordable solutions to save children from disease—and sometimes, believe it or not, even death.

With a bucket from Home Depot, nanoparticles of rust, and some sand, Thabit Pulak built an affordable tool to not only test the quality of drinking water for arsenic, but actually remove it from the water supply in Bangladesh.

Thabit knew from visiting his grandparents in Bangladesh during the summers that contaminated water was making children sick, affecting their futures and their ability to grow and learn.

Today, with a similar focus on scaling up life-saving tools, from new vaccines to insecticide-treated bednets to affordable infant resuscitation devices, we are advancing a global movement across our planet to end, once and for all, preventable child death.

As we sit here tonight, 6.6 million children under the age of 5 will die this year—the vast majority in poor countries around the world, and nearly all of them from easily preventable causes. And we can apply the kind of science and technology I saw this weekend to saving their lives.

We’re committed to making sure that every child everywhere lives to see their 5th birthday, and we think it is possible to achieve now because of the breakthroughs of science, technology, and innovation.

This blend of world-class talent and deep commitment to humanity in the generation of students we are about to celebrate this evening is genuinely extraordinary—and it is redefining what we can achieve together.

If the students here follow Dr. Horvitz’s advice—and follow their hearts as much as their heads—we have the ability to together achieve some extraordinary gains from mankind.

We can imagine a world without extreme poverty. In 1990, 44 percent of the entire world’s population lived on a dollar-and-a-quarter a day. Today, it is 22 percent.

A panel of experts led by countries around the world have come together and said we can eliminate—get it to less than 3 percent—by 2030 if we make a concerted effort and invest in applying this kind of innovation to that core objective.

So students, we’re not just looking at you today to transform your fields with the specific research you may have presented this past weekend.

We’re looking at you to serve as role models—as President Obama said—for a young generation of leaders who have their eyes set on transforming humanity.

And I think my own kids sensed the significance of that visit on Sunday.

They ran around the Science Fair on Sunday collecting the baseball-style cards that everyone had on their tables—starting with the back of the cards and looking at the special interests and then going to the front of the card and trying to decipher what all those project titles actually mean.

Afterwards, my son organized them on a coffee table at a restaurant—just like he would his own baseball cards—and he wanted to talk about each one.

We discussed how your discoveries and your work would change the world. Why your achievements were every bit as important as those of the Olympians we just celebrated a few weeks ago and those of baseballs stars who take the field in just a month or two.

In fact, they’re more important.

Because—like kids across this country—you have shown the passion to dream big and courage to believe, even when sometimes it seems like one else does, that we can achieve a tremendous amount of good together.

In research study after research study, it is our young people who believe more than anyone else that we can and should tackle big unanswered questions and solve tough problems of poverty, climate, economic opportunity that exist in our world.

In one survey I saw just a few weeks ago, 79 percent of young people polled agreed that ending global hunger is possible in their lifetimes—compared to just 37 percent of adults around the age of 55.

On college campuses across America, I’ve seen this passion come alive.

But I’ve also seen how this commitment inspires others, including those of us in Washington and our friends in Congress, who have lots of competing demands on their time and their energy.

Because when we in the United States government and institutions like USAID, partner with you—young scientists and dreamers—we are not only able to accelerate the delivery of amazing results. We are able to unlock greater commitment from all walks of American society.

At a time of tough politics, this diverse tent of political support has been critical to transforming our work at USAID into an open platform that can connect our brightest students to the world’s biggest challenges.

A few years ago, in 2008, USAID spent roughly $127 million on research and development.

Today, thanks to President Obama’s leadership, we spend nearly $900 million—not only on research, but innovation and applied solutions to make sure that those new breakthroughs are reaching the world’s poorest people.

A few years ago, we hosted just two fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This year, we’re hosting 65 AAAS Fellows—the largest number of any federal agency.

In fact, in the last four years, we’ve hired more than 1,100 new staff. And they’re astronomers and ecologists and chemists—and they, like so many of you in this room, are committed to applying their technical skill to serving the world’s most vulnerable people.

A few years ago, we were lucky if we got half-a-dozen proposals in response for our request for proposals that we might put out.

Since then, we’ve launched five Grand Challenges for Development—asking new innovators from around the world to come up with new ways to save infants lives in the first 48 hours after birth or ensure that students are improving their literacy skills in their first few years in school—using science and technology to advance those goals.

Today, these open competitions have received more than 6,000 applicants, and more than 400 world-class institutions applied for a spot to serve in our university network of development innovation labs. 

Empowered by President Obama’s leadership, we are increasingly committed to finding new ways for our young people to develop their own skills in STEM education and find inspiration for this shared mission.

That is why I’m so proud to note and announce USAID will participate at the 2014 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May—a sister contest to today’s prestigious competition.

For the first time ever, we will offer 4 prizes of $10,000 each for outstanding high school students who focus on alleviating hunger; improving global health; expanding access to energy; and strengthening resilience in the face of climate change.

And perhaps, more important than the prize itself, we will work to ensure that their work ends up connecting to our own development efforts so that they can see the fruits of their labor in practice in Missions around the world.

These will be the first-ever global development prizes offered at the International Fair. 

And we hope it starts a trend. We hope it galvanizes young people to commit themselves to mission as well as science.

You know, what I loved most about meeting many of you this past weekend was that each of you brought a unique source of inspiration that was clearly evident in your work.

Whether it was a relative who was sick that inspired you to study a disease or a friend who lost his home that led to you developing computer models to help our mortgage market be more effective, your work was inspired by a desire to serve others.

That passion matters more than technology and even more than talent that has been on display this past week. Because it has driven you to accomplish some amazing things.

As you continue on your path, you’ll find lots of opportunities to express your talent and your expertise, but I hope you will insist on constantly finding and nurturing your sources of passion and your commitment to service—whether it is driven by meeting young children who will never have the opportunities that have allowed so many of you to be so successful in this room today or whether it is serving members of your family, your community, or your country—it is that sense of service and that commitment to living out your passion that I think will ultimately be more rewarding for all of you.

So congratulations, thank you for having me, and to the students today, we’re so very proud of what you have already done.

National Building Museum, Washington DC

Last updated: May 07, 2014

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