The Sputnik Moment

Interesting article from Fred Kaplan at Slate:

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said. As a result, we need to fund “a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race,” with particularly strong investments in biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology. In the same section of the speech, he likened this funding effort to “the Apollo Project,” which later put a man on the moon.

Yet later on in the speech, Obama proposed, starting this year, to “freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years,” a step that, he boasted, would “bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

It’s hard to see how he or the Congress can resolve this contradiction—Kennedy-esque vigor and investment on the one hand, Ike-like torpor and penny-pinching on the other. He said much of this extra money could be freed up by eliminating subsidies for the oil companies. First, good luck on that. And second, that alone won’t free up enough.


The article does, however, go into some detail about the history of Sputnik and how brought new technologies into the mainstream, in particular the microchip.

So, what do you think? Is it possible to have a “Sputnik” moment, and to react to it without increasing domestic spending? Is the private sector up to the task? Are they willing? Or do we need to restructure our government spending a bit and make it work with Federal money?

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  1. Sputnik was essentially a political and military project, as was the US’s response to it. Unless we want to go down that road again (and I doubt it) I’d rather not see any more ‘Sputnik moments’. (Heh – I didn’t see the first one, as I was probably napping, at 6 months old).

    The response to Sputnik was based on fear.

    I’d rather see more Altair moments, or IBM PC’s, or Apple II’s, or any of the thousands of events that kick off genuine innovation and create thousands more jobs in new businesses. In fact, we have probably already reached nirvana with regards to these types of innovation (see: iPhone, internet…etc).

    None of these are things any government (or government entity) can plan or implement.

    BTW: that “bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president”… is a rhetorical trick – hardly any of the modern federal budget is discretionary. Just under 60% of the federal budget is in entitlements (

  2. Check this out to see the design files get the open source kicad.

    Biomedical design is interesting TI’s ADS1298 is a interesting biopotential mesurement chip.

    EMG Decoding in real time with ~94.5% acuracy using 4-8 capacitive electrodes into a arm band is my current open source project.

    the decoding algorithms using Hidden Markov Models , gausian mixture models, auto regressive coeficents…

  3. I think the opportunity passed for a ‘Sputnik moment’ 30 years ago. It requires a free market and a research environment free from the oppression of fear for a world-changing series of collaborative events to occur, and result in any kind of positive change. It simply can’t be legislated, then regulated, into being. Throwing taxpayer money at the idea won’t have any effect: it’s all politically controlled an motivated, and I dare you to find more than two politicians who aren’t too selfish to work together to ensure the money would be spent on the purpose intended.

    The best innovation we see these days always comes from the private sector (like the kinect holographic mapping).

  4. IMHO, I see nothing in our national character that leads me to believe that our country is capable of much change right now; let alone paradigm-shifting style change. For crying out loud, we even have to steal the name of another generation’s “moment”. Sputnik, hell. This is our economic collapse, overpopulation, peak oil, climate change moment.

  5. I *remeber* the Sputnik moment, I was alive at that time. I remember listening to Eisenhower’s Christmas message from the Project SCORE satellite in 1958. I remember the spasm of interest in science and math education, as my father was an elementary school science teacher at that time.

    What people who weren’t alive at that time may not appreciate was that that was all set in the context of the Cold War. A nation that could place a satellite on orbit could deliver a nuclear weapon via ICBM. A nation that could reach the Moon could use it for military purposes.

    Fundamentally, the Sputnik moment was about military superiority, and what was believed to be an existential national crisis.

    I think it’s at best a flawed analogy to our current situation. What would be an analogous miracle now would be to *not* respond to our problems by throwing money at them. And what SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace are up to now are the metaphors we should be looking to.

  6. Call me crazy, but isn’t Obama the same person who annihilated NASA’s funding not 2 years ago? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be fair to say Obama believes in science and research IRO (in rhetoric only)?

    If the past 2 years are any indication, corrupt labor unions and czars are Obama’s only true friends.

  7. I agree, "good luck on that." Our entire war engine is an oil company subsidy. We could cut oil subsidy and invest in other energy technology if we just stopped attacking every place with oil or mining oil in hard to access places.

    The government pays for most of the work in finding oil and retrieving oil and handling resource contention over oil (ie. WAR) but isn’t allowed to profit from it; oil companies, internationally traded oil companies, profit from America’s hard work. Having oil companies handle this all themselves would mean the people directly benefiting from these profits would be doing all the investment, which is how every other industry works.

    Obama was right, oil companies don’t need our help, but we need help arresting control of our money from them.

    Put that aside, though, and any investment in energy research will mean white collar jobs for us. That means taxes and tariffs and stimulus and education and health care and trade for anyone remotely connected to people of this industry. It means we export instead of import technology the world wants. It means we meet the demand instead of we ARE the demand. I don’t understand why the republican party, who may not believe in climate change, can’t get behind selling products they don’t believe in to people who do believe. Republicans aren’t just snake oil salesmen, they’re BAD snake oil salesmen.

    What upset me about Obama’s speech was, I heard him demanding people become career teachers, and as eloquently as he asked, he didn’t commit, with equal eloquence and conviction, to making the career of teaching more stable and attractive.

    Until people can decide on a career in teaching, we are going to have bad teachers. Right now, teaching is the fall back position from some failed endeavour. That means a good number of teachers (not all, some people do choose it as a career) are FAILURES…bitter, angry, uncommitted drop-outs of another industry.

    So all this prose about "we need good teachers" and "we need to keep America innovating and a leader in ideas" (I am paraphrasing, of course) is meaningless until we can say, "Get a teaching job, we’ll get your back for insurance, pension, and reasonable pay."

    Right now, with republicans licking their chops to force states to file for bankruptcy, allowing states to default on pensions and promises they’ve made to public employees…TEACHERS. Teachers who have committed their lives to raising the bar for our students to raise the tide for our country. Teachers willing to work for low wages for all of their lives for the promise of some support in their silver years. The republicans want these people to stand in soup lines like bums:

    How can we commit to a better educated America if we can’t commit to public teachers? People in America are afraid of spending money on the education of people who flip burgers. I understand that we don’t want to pay for opportunities for people who don’t take them, but we DON’T! We have the best Junior College system in the world, and it’s sustainable. This is the best service America provides its people. It’s where America spends money on the people who will use our education the best.

    If I could meet republicans half way, I’d say kick kids out of school two years sooner, and spend half that money on preschool and half that money on Junior College. That would put more money in optional education and get more education to the people who will use it.

    The preschool option also gets parents an earlier opportunity to COMMIT TO WORK. Being a parent, I have decided not to commit to work until I can get my child better education than myself. Stay at home parents stay at home while they wait for kindergarten. Meanwhile, they aren’t earning money, paying taxes, or stimulating the economy. Educating our kids earlier means parents getting back to work earlier.

    I’m not just responding to a blog entry here. I am brain storming letters to politicians, so if it sounds like I have a narrative, I do. Unlike most of the world, I don’t consider "narrative" a four letter word.

  8. That is a wildly interesting question, johngineer. I think the private sector COULD help with this. Don’t know if they will. I really do feel much more money needs to be going into research, though. Awesome things always happen when people are paid to learn new things (probably because it’s just so much fun).

  9. Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is no.

    The single most important motivation for such innovation in the 50’s was, I think, fear of annihilation. And it was not the for the demise of Democracy, or the United States, but rather the type of Capitalism that the U.S. embodied and fostered.

    It is thus Capitalism, rightly or wrongly, that will ultimately scuttle such "sputnik moments", because if you look at the areas being targeted for innovation, they are already home to competing, thriving, marketplaces: cheap renewable energy will meet resistance from the oil companies, biomedicine is the domain of pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, information technology is under pressure to become a commodity, etc. It will be very difficult to, in this day of age, for any radically new and wholesale change in technology to overcome the inertia of the marketplace. Because unlike the launch of Sputnik and the specter of the Soviet Union, the "fear" that will drive the decision to move forward with these initiatives is the fear of annihilation of jobs; oil refinery workers, drillers, healthcare workers, and mass media.

    I think it’s ironic that President Obama invoked Eisenhower in the State of the Union address. Because it was Eisenhower who deftly observed that during those heady times of the early sixties the greatest threat to America came not from the burgeoning USSR, but from the Military Industrial Complex. What really needs to happen is for America to realize, that to make sure it remains the beacon for the World in the coming century, is that, as Franklin Roosevelt intoned at another tumultuous time in US history, "The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit." And that, I feel, is too bitter a pill to swallow.

    Thank you.

  10. Of course there are many answers to that. He did say he was freezing federal paychecks. That’s a good start, and something he can control fairly easily.

    This is a leadership question. Taking us in directions we might not want to go naturally. I think he’s show this with restructuring the NASA mission. Lots of complaints, but ultimately probably a good thing.

    I think it’s a combination of private and federal. The X-Prizes are a perfect example of private. Even the Adafruit Kinect bounty is a great example. There are many contests on Thingiverse for the design and creation of new things.

    The government ran “race to the top” as a competitive federally funded thing, and probably did some good.

    As I was listening to the speech, I was thinking, “probably not exactly like that Kennedy esque spending, but more likely driven by the private sector with some targetted government help in areas that would free up dollars, open up regulations, and iron out cross state issues. For example, only the federal government can free up wireless spectrum. While the private sector can do all the research to come up with what it should be used for.

    So, it’s all possible, as long as we don’t get caught up in the partisan finger pointing of why we can’t get it done.

  11. I recommend this article at the Wall Street Journal as the best commentary on this issue:

    “The Great Misallocators – What Barack Obama and General Electric have in common.”

    Note: the web format is screwed up at the moment, but the article is readable if you scroll down.

  12. Oops, wrong link:

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