Americans care more about American Idol than science, University President Mary Sue Coleman said during a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. For the United States to prosper, its priorities must change, she said.

Jessica Boullion

The National Press Club, located in Washington, is composed of journalists from across the country and invites experts about 70 times a year to speak on important contemporary issues.

In her speech, titled “Not Your Father’s Space Race,” Coleman said the future of the United States depends on innovation, science education and research by American universities. Her concerns stem from her role as a scientist, university president and resident of a state struggling through an economic crisis, she said.

Coleman said she wants the country to prioritize science as it did during the space race of the 1950s and 1960s.

“There was the science, of course, but more importantly there was the Soviet Union,” Coleman said. “JFK was going to beat them and so was every aspiring scientist in America – young people like me who became enthralled with the power and promise of science.”

But Coleman said she worries about whether Americans will focus on innovation without the common goal America had forty years ago.

“Our national priorities are not necessarily shared priorities,” Coleman said. “There’s not a whole lot that we rally behind together as a society, except perhaps who should be the next ‘American Idol.’ “

Division in today’s American society contrasts with the sense of unity felt during the space race, hindering American ingenuity, Coleman said.

She referred to the state of Michigan’s restrictions on stem cell research, which she said could drive talented scientists to other states and hurt Michigan’s economy.

“Our investments are at risk if scientists in our state cannot pursue the most promising avenues of research,” Coleman said.

Coleman praised the University’s involvement in the Google Book Project, saying it encourages innovative research and education. Google plans to scan all 7 million volumes in the University’s libraries. Coleman said the publishing companies suing Google over the legality of the project are too intimidated by change to consider potential benefits.

“We cannot afford to be short-sighted about discoveries that may well provide new models for business and for scholarship,” she said.

The hot topic of keeping American researchers and students competitive in the global economy was underscored when President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative in his State of the Union address last month.

Over the next 10 years, the initiative aims to create $136 billion in new funding for research, education and entrepreneurship.

Coleman she in an interview after the speech that was pleased to see the White House taking steps to ensure America remains economically competitive in the future.

“We can’t dwell in the past, because the past is gone,” Coleman said. “We can’t be afraid of new industries. We ought to embrace them and find ways to nurture them.”

The group invited Coleman after Bush’s announcement because of her expertise on research and global competitiveness.

The pop president

Pop culture references Coleman used in yesterday’s speech:

-American Idol: Coleman said Americans do not have shared priorities, saying the country doesn’t get behind anything “except perhaps who be the next ‘American Idol.’ ”

-Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce Knowles: Coleman urged Americans to respect the importance of intelligence more than they revere “Bruce and Beyonce.”

-Grammy awards: Coleman criticized the media’s placing more attention on the Grammys than on the country’s struggle to remain a leader in science and technology.

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