Our Amazing Response To Sputnik Made America Richer and Stronger. But Here’s Why It Would Be Almost Impossible To…

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June 4 2012 6:25 AM

Can America Ever Have Another “Sputnik Moment”?

Our amazing response to Sputnik made America richer and stronger. But here’s why it would be almost impossible to duplicate that today.

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Right away, the limitations of the Sputnik analogy should be clear.

First, there are plenty of threats that science could address: climate change, cyber-security, impending food and water shortages, among others. But none of these threats are tangible, at least not to those who would pass the budgets to deal with them. Yes, charts and graphs can be summoned to demonstrate that the dangers are real, but the threats—the prospects of crisis—lie in the future. There is nothing quite so dramatic (even if, in the scheme of things, less serious) as the beep of Sputnik overhead.

Second, and related to this complacency, consensus is not what it used to be. Back in the late 1950s, if a dozen scientists said something was so, a lot of people were inclined to believe it. (This wasn’t always to the good, by the way.) Now we live in a world where only one of this past season’s Republican presidential candidates would publicly express “belief” in global warming—and where several of them dismissed evolution.

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Third, the solutions to many of today’s problems rub up against well-funded interest groups. Spending more money on science teachers and students in 1957 took away resources from nobody, except maybe English and Latin departments (and they had no lobbying power). Spending more money to promote programs that deal with today’s problems—energy, food, and so forth—would buck up against the most powerful lobbying groups there are.

Finally, the late 1950s saw the beginning of federal investment not only in education but also in research and development, welfare, health care, and social justice. The 1958 education bill was a new thing. It passed because it was seen as urgent and necessary, but it also paved the way for the expansion of federal jurisdiction to come. From the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, spending on R&D soared by 200 percent; half of the increase came from the federal government. In the same period, 75 percent of research scientists and engineers were employed in federally subsidized projects. Today, new federal programs are viewed with suspicion—even in areas where large-scale investment is beyond the means, or risk levels, of private companies.

Obama was right that we need a “Sputnik Moment.” But, like the original, it will require a change in thinking, an expansion in the permissible boundaries of what government can legitimately do. Also like the original, it may take a catastrophe—or the widespread perception of a catastrophe—to galvanize the change.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Make magazine’s Dale Dougherty on learning science by building rockets and robots. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.