President Obama thanked the the National Academy of Sciences and said if it weren't for them, "I would not be here." He was referring to the work they did to help the Union in the Civil War.
Via the pool reports:
Explaining how the iron sides of ships made their compasses unreliable: "They were bumping into things and going the wrong way. So the basic physics of magnetism undermined the usefulness of the iron-clad vessels, even as the Confederates were stocking up on them. And that's where your predecessors came in."
On the BAS mandate: "But President Lincoln founded the academy with a mandate that went far beyond the science and technology of war. Even as the nation was at war with itself, President Lincoln had the wisdom of looking forward. And he recognized that finding a way to harvest the highest caliber scientific advice for the government would serve a whole range of long term goals for the nation."
Later, he added: "That's our inheritance. And now the task falls to us." ...
little more from Obama's speech:
POTUS said that the NAS quickly got to work quickly, inspecting the Union's iron-clad ships and installing bar magnets a year-and-a-half after the charter. "So, right of the bat, you guys were really useful."
"In fact, it's fair to say we might not be here today. Certainly, I would not be here."
The audience looked to be about 200-300 people, including about two dozen current and former administration officials.
Obama also said the sequester is hurting scientific research:
"It's hitting our scientific research. Instead of racing ahead on the next cutting edge discovery, many of our scientists are wondering if they'll get to start any new projects, any new research projects over the next few years, which means that we could lose a year, two years of science and research as a practical matter because of misguided priorities here in this town.
"With the pace of technological innovation today, we can't afford to stand still for a year or two years or three years. We've got to seize every opportunity we have to stay ahead. And we can't let other countries win the race foe ideas and technology of the future."
UPDATE: Here's the text, via the official White House transcript:
The National Academy soon counted the nation’s top scientists as members. They quickly got to work. By the next year, they were inspecting the Union’s ironclads and installing an array of bar magnets around the compasses to correct their navigation. So right off the bat, you guys were really useful. (Laughter.) In fact, it’s fair to say we might not be here had you not -- (laughter) -- certainly I would not be here. (Laughter and applause.)