We are far better equipped to take on the challenges we face than at any time in human history.
I still believe that. I believe we can work together to do big things that raise the fortunes of people here at home and all over the world. And even if we’ve got some work left to do on faster-than-light travel, I still believe science and technology is the warp drive that accelerates that kind of change for everybody.
Here’s another thing I believe: We are far better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before. I know that might sound at odds with what we see and hear these days in the cacophony of cable news and social media. But the next time you’re bombarded with over-the-top claims about how our country is doomed or the world is coming apart at the seams, brush off the cynics and fearmongers. Because the truth is, if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.
Let’s start with the big picture. By almost every measure, this country is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, or even eight years ago. Leave aside the sepia tones of the 1950s, a time when women, minorities, and people with disabilities were shut out of huge parts of American life. Just since 1983, when I finished college, things like crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, and poverty rates are all down. Life expectancy is up. The share of Americans with a college education is up too. Tens of millions of Americans recently gained the security of health insurance. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks to lead our businesses and communities. Women are a larger part of our workforce and are earning more money. Once-quiet factories are alive again, with assembly lines churning out the components of a clean-energy age.
And just as America has gotten better, so has the world. More countries know democracy. More kids are going to school. A smaller share of humans know chronic hunger or live in extreme poverty. In nearly two dozen countries—including our own—people now have the freedom to marry whomever they love. And last year the nations of the world joined together to forge the most comprehensive agreement to battle climate change in human history.
This kind of progress hasn’t happened on its own. It happened because people organized and voted for better prospects; because leaders enacted smart, forward-looking policies; because people’s perspectives opened up, and with them, societies did too. But this progress also happened because we scienced the heck out of our challenges. Science is how we were able to combat acid rain and the AIDS epidemic. Technology is what allowed us to communicate across oceans and empathize with one another when a wall came down in Berlin or a TV personality came out. Without Norman Borlaug’s wheat, we could not feed the world’s hungry. Without Grace Hopper’s code, we might still be analyzing data with pencil and paper.
That’s one reason why I’m so optimistic about the future: the constant churn of scientific progress. Think about the changes we’ve seen just during my presidency. When I came into office, I broke new ground by pecking away at a BlackBerry. Today I read my briefings on an iPad and explore national parks through a virtual-reality headset. Who knows what kind of changes are in store for our next president and the ones who follow?
That’s why I centered this issue on the idea of frontiers—stories and ideas about what’s over the next horizon, about what lies on the other side of the barriers we haven’t broken through yet. I wanted to explore how we get past where we are today to build a world that’s even better for us all—as individuals, as communities, as a country, and as a planet.
Because the truth is, while we’ve made great progress, there’s no shortage of challenges ahead: Climate change. Economic inequality. Cybersecurity. Terrorism and gun violence. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Just as in the past, to clear these hurdles we’re going to need everyone—policy makers and community leaders, teachers and workers and grassroots activists, presidents and soon-to-be-former presidents. And to accelerate that change, we need science. We need researchers and academics and engineers; programmers, surgeons, and botanists. And most important, we need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3-D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution.
That’s how we will overcome the challenges we face: by unleashing the powerof all of us for all of us. Not just for those of us who are fortunate, but for everybody. That means creating not just a quicker way to deliver takeout downtown but also a system that distributes excess produce to communities where too many kids go to bed hungry. Not just inventing a service that fills your car with gas but also creating cars that don’t need fossil fuels at all. Not just making our social networks more fun for sharing memes but also harnessing their power to counter terrorist ideologies and online hate speech.
The point is, we need today’s big thinkers thinking big. Think like you did when you were watching Star Trek or Star Wars or Inspector Gadget. Think like the kids I meet every year at the White House Science Fair. We started this event in 2010 with a simple premise: We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated but the winner of the science fair. Since then, I’ve met young people who are tackling everything from destroying cancer cells to using algae to produce clean energy to distributing vaccines to remote areas of the world—all before most of them can even vote.
And as I meet with these young people, I can’t help but wonder what might be next—what might happen at a White House Science Fair in five years or 20 years or 50 years? I imagine a student who grows an artificial pancreas right in front of the president—an idea that eventually eliminates waiting lists for lifesaving organs. I imagine the girls who discover a new fuel based on only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide; the teenager who makes voting and civic activism as addictive as scrolling through your Twitter feed; the boy from Idaho who grows potatoes from a plot of soil brought back from our colony on Mars. And I imagine some future president strolling out on the South Lawn with a student who invented a new kind of telescope. As the president looks through the lens, the girl turns the telescope to a planet she just discovered, orbiting a faraway star at the very edge of our galaxy. Then she says she’s hard at work on another invention—one that will take us there someday.
These kinds of moments are closer than you think. My hope is that these kids—maybe some of your kids or grandkids—will be even more curious and creative and confident than we are today. But that depends on us. We must continue to nurture our children’s curiosity. We must keep funding scientific, technological, and medical research. And above all, we must embrace that quintessentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the boundaries of what’s possible. If we do, I’m hopeful that tomorrow’s Americans will be able to look back at what we did—the diseases we conquered, the social problems we solved, the planet we protected for them—and when they see all that, they’ll plainly see that theirs is the best time to be alive. And then they’ll take a page from our book and write the next great chapter in our American story, emboldened to keep going where no one has gone before.
This article appears in the November 2016 issue.