Saturday, January 29, 2011

A "Sputnik moment", again and again?

On January 25, in the state of the union speech, President Obama used the term "Sputnik moment" in the following context:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

The term "Sputnik moment" has been used in the past. The Christian Science Monitor used it in a editorial about ten years ago. Interestingly, DOE Secretary Chu, used it in Nov. 2010 [at the National Press Club on 29 Nov. 2010], in a context different from that of President Obama. Chu's speech began:

And the title of the talk is "The Energy Race: Our New Sputnik Moment." And I know the analogies to Sputnik are trite, and they've been used a lot. But let me suggest that perhaps this is something that should be taken seriously.

AND at the end

And so in this "Sputnik moment" of today, I urge that we do two things. We should formulate sensible, long-range energy policies that have bipartisan support to guide the private sector of the United States. China is doing this. It seems to be working. We should do this. Long-range policies.
And what about increasing the support of energy research and development. Why? Well, in research and development, private investments don't usually recoup the full value of the benefit. So companies are reluctant to do some of the early stage research and development. And, quite frankly, a lot of the new technologies could displace an embedded way of doing business and could be met with resistance.
Therefore, the government has to say, this is the path that we should be going in for long-term future prosperity. And we have to do that. And let me emphasize that wealth creation is driven by innovation, and it is not a conserved quantity. That if we collaborate with China and India, we both come out better for it.

IPBiz notes that in 1957 there was a single event which caused Americans to instantly recognize that, contrary to their previous beliefs, the Soviet Union was ahead in the space race. The brain drain to China and India, and the energy problem are things that have been going on for decades. The present situation is not a "Sputnik moment."

James Greenwood of BIO described in 2005 his encounter with Sputnik in 1957 and how it is DIFFERENT from the present :

MR. GREENWOOD: You know, when I was a boy, when Sputnik went over, my dad woke us up at 3:00 in the morning and we all stood out on the front porch and we watched Sputnik, and the whole country did that. And we all saw it, and we went "uh-oh," and we changed math and science teaching. The problem is what's happening in places like Korea right now is subtle, and nobody's stepping out on their front porch to see it.

The 2002 editorial in the Christian Science Monitor used the term "Sputnik moment" more in the historical sense, and is worth remembering for a prediction the Chinese made that did not come to pass. From the editorial of May 28, 2002:

IT was not a Sputnik moment. At least not yet.

But China's quiet announcement this month that it plans to put a man on the moon by 2010 and then mine the rich lunar minerals by 2015 could eventually provoke a new space race.

And the 2002 editorial had some points related to Chu's comments about collaboration with China:

Shouldn't the colonization of space be shared by all mankind? That was the idea behind the orbiting international space station (not to mention treaties on using Antarctica and the oceans). Why not in harvesting the moon? Or even in peopling Mars?

Alas, China has more earth-bound reasons for keeping its go-it-alone space program. Like the US in the 1960s, a moon base for China would be a great leap forward in national security, scientific progress, economic spin-offs, and national unity (behind the Communist Party, of course).

And recent evidence of water-ice trapped in the moon (as well as on Mars) will make it easier to sustain human life there and not share the work with other nations - or the mineral resources or the glory.

And on China sharing glory, see
Chinese academic publication requirements stir debate in US

IPBiz notes that there is a far more insidious internal brain drain: the waste of trained American minds. One recalls the letter of Alan Hale of Hale-Bopp fame, from the year 1997:

I am Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp which, as I'm sure you're aware, is getting a tremendous amount of media attention at this time. Like I'm sure is true for many of you, I was inspired by the scientific discoveries and events taking place during my childhood to pursue a career in science only to find, after completing the rigors of undergraduate and graduate school, that the opportunities for us to have a career in science are limited at best and are which I usually describe as "abysmal." Based upon my own experiences, and those of you with whom I have discussed this issue, my personal feeling is that, unless there are some pretty drastic changes in the way that our society approaches science and treats those of us who have devoted our lives to making some of our own contributions, there is no way that I can, with a clear conscience, encourage present-day students to pursue a career in science. It really pains me a great deal to say something like that, but I feel so strongly about this that I have publicly made this statement at almost every opportunity I have been given.
I am trying to use the media attention that is currently being focused upon me to raise awareness of this state of affairs, and perhaps start to effect those changes that will allow me to convey a more positive message to the next generation. So far, I'm sensing a certain reluctance among the media to discuss this issue, as they seem far more interested in items which I consider to be irrelevant and unimportant. But I intend to keep hammering away at this, and I'd like to believe that eventually some are going to sit up and take notice. I am also attempting to schedule meetings with some of our government leaders, to see if I can at least get some acknowledgement from Washington that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

My reason for writing to you is to ask your help. I know that I'm not alone in being frustrated about the current prospects for pursuing any kind of decent career within science, and I'm quite sure that many of you have "horror stories" about your searches for decent employment that are quite similar to my own. I'd like to hear them. I'd especially like to hear from those of you who are on your second or third or fourth post-doc, or who have left the field as a result of the employment situation, or who have experienced severe personal difficulties (e.g., break-up of a marriage, etc.). I realize that some of these might be painful to discuss, but I'd like to show that we are not a bunch of impersonal statistics, but that we're human beings trying to make an honest living and perhaps make a contribution or two to society while we're at it. Speaking of statistics, though, if you received any information about the numbers of applicants to some of the positions you applied to -- which was often a 3-digit number in my case -- I'd like to hear that, too.

***See also
Sarah Palin Elaborates on "Sputnik" Criticism


Post a Comment

<< Home