Secretary Chu Invokes Sputnik to Spur Us on in Competitiveness and Energy Innovation

By Chris Mooney | December 1, 2010 11:39 am

See here, video courtesy of “Planet Foward”:

What do people think? The Sputnik analogy comes up frequently in connection with where we stand now in science and innovation, vis a vis the rest of the world.

Is it a fair analogy?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Politics, Science Workforce

Comments (7)

  1. Don’t think it fair as:

    : The catalyst for competing with Sputnik was politically inspired and supported because of the politics of the day
    : No need for any special science, or even technology for that matter, to initiate and progress the development. All was well understood. Just had to “make it happen”.

  2. ThomasL

    Let’s see…

    The age of Sputnik – The U.S. is the undisputed leader in Education, Economic might, national savings and real wealth, industrial capability, technological advancement – to just name a few things.

    Today… – Not so much on any of the above, and serious competition in all areas.

    Yep, great analogy. It’s hard to throw “everything the country has” at a problem when the country is already in hock up to its ears (well, maybe it is actually easy as there isn’t much lying around left to “throw” at anything…).

  3. The Sputnik analogy will no longer work well. At that point in history it was easy to be egged on by notions of the ‘Evil Empire’. Very few circumstances offer as many incentives for scientific research and development on a national footing as war. The Cold War with all its evils and misunderstandings was certainly a marvelous opportunity to channel money into science and science education, and it was easy to get all excited and patriotic about science.

    The fact is that after the Cold War there was no enemy big enough to inspire similar feelings. One could think that climate change or terrorism could play this role, but these problems are much too diffuse, polylithic and complicated to achieve similar results as Sputnik.

  4. My biggest concern is that we have waited too long to reach our “Sputnik” moment. However, I feel we must act. We must act immediately. The problem is that the threat is so intangible. I suspect Americans will be skeptical of the magnitude of the problem (much like climate change). Americans understand threats of violence. It’s much more difficult to communicate the threat of economic and scientific competition. Finally, we lack a charismatic leader to motivate us toward these goals. Chu cites Eisenhower, who was a very convincing leader. Chu is a scientist, not a science communicator, as clearly demonstrated in the robotic delivery of this speech. You should juxtapose this video ( of the sputnik moment with Chu’s speech and consider the way the media is dealing with this lapse in America’s domination of the sciences versus how the sputnik event was handled by the media in the 50’s. Therein, lies part of the problem.

  5. Sean McCorkle

    The call to beef up STEM funding and activities in the US are laudatory. The immense benefits which resulted from America’s reaction to Sputnik are well documented. While people were interested and inspired by Sputnik (a la Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys: A Memoir), the major cause of the response was cold wartime fear. Fear is an effective motivator; it can mobilize even the most lackadaisical individual. It was easy to get congress riled up and ready to fund anything that might shore up perceived shortcomings on our side, for fear of being outmaneuvered in the high frontier, or losing out in a race for advanced weaponry. (As #4 says, once the threat dried up, so did much funding for high energy physics and space research).

    The current threat that Chu is describing is mainly economic competitiveness. Thats probably way down on the fear scale by comparison, and it won’t elicit the same level of response from politicians.

    Ultimately, fanning fears to fund science is wrong, although it can be effective. Far better for the public to knowingly fund research for the collective benefits to society and civilization.

  6. JMW

    The real question should be, will it accomplish anything?

    I doubt it. The US is on a slide to becoming a third world country, with tainted and unethical politics, an economy that doesn’t work, a growing gap between rich and poor. The Sputnik moment had better not be about just innovation in the energy sector, it had better be about everything. Otherwise Americans will continue on their fat, dumb, happy way to the spot in history where all the other world-spanning empires end up.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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