Of China, Solar, and Sputnik

By Chris Mooney | January 21, 2011 1:47 pm

I just came across a wise piece at Huffington Post about modern Sputnik analogies that substitute China for the Soviet Union:

The 1957 Sputnik launching kick-started American progress in education and technology, but it also deepened an enmity between the world’s two super powers. Today’s Sputnik moment epidemic can serve to redouble our efforts in the teaching of math and science (though I’d hope not at the expense of history, literature, art, music, and the classics) and in the pursuit of new sources of energy. But let it not make China our 21st-century Russia. Let us not fall into the simple mindset that we’re playing a zero-sum game, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

Fair enough. I support the sentiment fully.

To me, though, just as troubling as the Sputnik analogy is the Sputnik dis-analogy. When it comes to investing in education and innovation, we aren’t responding to the current competitiveness challenge in anything like the way we responded in 1957.

As we explained in Unscientific America, following the Soviet launch of Sputnik this country poured a massive investment into scientific research, science education, space exploration, and much else. And that set the U.S. on course to dominate the world in science for the next half century.

Right now, by contrast, partisanship and ideology are preventing us from doing the same when it comes to clean energy innovation. We’re holding back our domestic clean energy industry because we can’t agree to put a price on carbon–and we’re doing that because we can’t even agree that global warming is our collective fault. Meanwhile, solar heads to China, and no wonder–that nation is now investing massively more than we do in renewable energy.

To me the real question is this: Can partisanship and ideology become so powerful that they prevent the ability to respond to a Sputnik moment? Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that they can.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Energy

Comments (10)

  1. JMW

    The answer to the question is: of course they can.

    Partisanship, n. prejudice in favour of a particular cause; bias

    Ideology, n. a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

    Both definitions from oxforddictionaries.com.

    Partisanship in America has become more about winning than it has been about guiding the country appropriately.

    Ideology is about making sure that the rules are always followed. When the rules include (among others) “protect big oil” and “don’t allow anything to change”, then anything else will be sacrificed.

  2. Mike H

    I made this point yesterday, but I suppose since the canard is repeated again I will have to repeat it: China is developing manufacturing of renewable energy not for its own consumption, but primarily to capitalize on our consumption of it. The Chinese energy sector will be dominated by four sources in 15 years: coal, hydro, nuclear and gas … renewable (sans hydro) will be in a very distant 5th place.

  3. peter

    The Chinese energy sector will be dominated by four sources in 15 years: coal, hydro, nuclear and gas

    and you know this how?
    What is the expected supply of uranium – I read somewhere 35 years for easily extractable uranium.
    Gas – as long as you can afford the transportation. Pipelines throughout the far east are extremely vulnerable to attacks. Transport overseas including pressurization, the ships etc. are very costly – not cheap enough for an economy that counts on cheap supplies of those commodities to be competitive.
    Coal – with the rising cancer rates and ever increasing pollution, cleaner plants are a necessity that also affects the competitiveness of chines industry.

    Whatever they do – if the US invests in alternative energy industries, they only can win in the long run, and give china a run for their money. It will not be happening, as the dinosaurs of the US energy sector are too powerful and their congressional and senatorial lobby too entrenched.


    China wants our Commerce, and Energy. Chris should know if he has walked around NSF lately, that it is practically Asian over there. Chu and Locke are there for a reason. Perhaps Chris wants to address the reasons for 60% of the Science and Math PhDs going to Asians, at US Universities, or why Chinese scientists are being hiredat our national labs.

    China wants oil, needs much more oil, and has to obtain it by curtailing US consumption.

    What we really need are lawyers that know enough science, to carry out a sensible discussion. There is a need for oversight in Science to keep it on track and from falling prey to corruptive influences. It is not uncommon, for example, for public money to be used in NSF grants, to buy unnecessary equipment (often obsolete), as bribes to other scientists, who when then render degrees and positions to their associates. This is why scientists often have relatives in the scientific supply or support businesses.

    Anyone who calls political attention to questionable scientific practices is quickly labeled a “grandstander”. People at universities are saying that subpoenas for staffers are illegitimate. Science needs to be cleaned up, more than the atmosphere.

    One woman I know received her PhD and a position at JPL, because of a bribe, and she pretends to do science for a living. She is currently directing an research program that is nonsense, using many budding foreign investigators as a way to obtain grant support from NASA.

    Chris – perhaps one of your children can direct a science program in the government. Other upper level science officers at NSF have practically appointed their children as program directors, as well as giving their project a scope.

  5. Mark

    Perhaps the key distinction here is that conservatives eagerly respond to perceived military threats, but are unwilling to even acknowledge environmental threats. Sputnik was seen as a military threat so the conservatives were tripping over each other in their rush to build up our military strength, and demonstrate it through the space program. If China were to build a solar powered fighter plane that was superior to our jet fighters, we would see a Sputnik-like response. But short of that, I think you’re right Chris – it’s not going to happen. When sea level rises, the wealthy will simply move to higher ground. At most, it’s an inconvenience to them.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    “What is the expected supply of uranium – I read somewhere 35 years for easily extractable uranium.”

    Total resources have been estimated to be sufficient for about 10,000 years, although in many ways it’s a meaningless concept. We can’t predict technology a hundred years ahead, let alone a thousand. The phrase “easily extractable” means at today’s prices using today’s technology. But the price of the fuel does not drive the cost of nuclear energy – the capital construction costs for the higher build standards required by safety regulations dominate.

    You listed disadvantages for coal, gas, and nuclear, but you could do exactly the same for wind, tide, and solar. Transport, storage, reliability, and the blight on the landscape and the wildlife. And cheaper energy saves more lives.

  7. Theory is always preferred to experiment because virtual mud always packs tighter than real gems. “Unknown hazards” plus “more studies needed” sum to an abusive hegemony of beige. No centralized large scale decision can successfully micromanage,


    a solar powered fighter plane idiot A 1935 Messerschmitt Bf 109 Fighter was a megawatt. The F-4 Phantom II was 24 MW. A GE90-115B Brayton turbofan jet engine is rated 83 MW. Yer gonna need a very long extension cord. No solar panel is more than 10% efficient, incoming high noon 21 June sunlight to output AC socket.

  8. Eric the Leaf

    Chris, you ought to be advertising republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett. I’ve mentioned this any number of times in the past. You should arrange for an interview. He’s not getting any younger.


  9. Scott

    “Let us not fall into the simple mindset that we’re playing a zero-sum game, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser.”

    Let us not also forget that China is a communist police state that engages in oppression of its own citizens on a massive level. While a new cold war should be avoided if we can reasonable do so, we should not shy away from one if it is necessary.

  10. sHx

    Since China is so far ahead in wind and solar, could someone please tell us how much renewable energy they are producing?

    I understand that China is building a new coal power station every week. Right or wrong? How many renewable power plants have been built recently?

    Unless someone can point me some evidence that shows a profusion of solar and wind power plants, then it’s foolish to think that the renewables industry in China is for domestic sales.

    As mentioned above, the growth in China’s solar and wind factories has only one purpose: to sell as much and as cheaply as possible to guilt-stricken gullible Westerners who’ll have no choice but to buy cheaper Chinese-made products.


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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 Salon.com 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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