Can You Have a Purely Economic Sputnik?

By Chris Mooney | January 26, 2011 7:39 am

That’s the question I pose in my latest post at DeSmogBlog:

Essentially, President Obama wants us to recreate the same sense of urgency, and the same national unity, but without the same fear of another competitor country, unless that country is supposed to be China—which, the President noted, recently “became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.” Okay, that’s something of a spur…but it is not, historically speaking, a Sputnik. (And, making China into the enemy is a very problematic notion.)

Obama wasn’t even speaking in a national security frame last night when he invoked Sputnik. He was speaking in an economic one. The sense of shared threat was displaced from an external other to our own economic problems—joblessness and deficits.

And that’s the real trick: Is the yearning for national unity, in the wake of Tucson, enough to overcome this chief non-parallel in Obama’s Sputnik analogy? Because undoubtedly, investing in more clean energy research, and more research in general, will spur jobs and innovation. But will we remember to forget our differences in the meantime? Is there some glue that will hold us together? Given the way politics now operate in the U.S., it’s hard to be so optimistic.

You can read the full post here.

Comments (7)

  1. In the words of John Boehner… “Hell no you can’t.”

    The attitudes and political realities that produced that comment… something that as Speaker he would not utter… are still driving political choices in America in a direction that Eric Hoffer described so well.

  2. TTT

    Our Sputnik moment came at a very different point in our economic life. Before international job competition of any significance, before Medicare spending, before the disastrous Reaganite / W anti-revenue experiment, and before the Iraq War. I’m not sure what specifically Obama wants us to achieve, but whatever it is I doubt we have the means or the will.

  3. ThomasL

    Why does this surprise you Jon? He has two rather large negatives in the view of many. First, G.E. actually shed around 31,000 U.S. jobs (while increasing overseas jobs) during the time of his tenure. Then add in the signing over all the aircraft technology to China issue and it isn’t too hard to see why two large factions of the centerright are annoyed at the pick…

    “He Certainly Knows How to Cut Jobs…”: http://newswires-americas.com/markettalk/?p=14910 and http://ilene.typepad.com/ourfavorites/2011/01/alpha-2-says-cliff-ahead.html (under the charts around the middle they start talking about Immelt). These are representative of what was getting written the 21st…, showing there have been concerns from the start.

    Then add in this to make sure a third non-partisan group (taxes) gets involved…: http://www.zerohedge.com/article/tax-winnersloser-obama-immelt-no-conflict

    I’m keeping an open mind about him, but then I don’t think it is Governments job to “create” jobs, but rather to be more like a referee or grounds keeper, tolling to keep the playing field reasonably level and ensure the universal enforcement of the laws…

  4. Sean McCorkle

    Good article, Chris. I like your analysis.

    @4

    but then I don’t think it is Governments job to “create” jobs, but rather to be more like a referee or grounds keeper, tolling to keep the playing field reasonably level and ensure the universal enforcement of the laws…

    I would more or less agree with that. However, there are also good examples of research conducted by the government (generally basic research, but not necessarily so), too risky to be considered by any business, or too expensive for any one company or both, but which can produce results that lead to great commercial opportunities.

    (A) Basic research gives rise to (B) ideas for applied research, which gives rise to (C) ideas for new products, methods etc.

    Companies can and do (C) and sometimes (B) and in rare cases (A), but the links between (A) and (B) are often unforeseeable, unpredictable, high risk and expensive. That can sometimes be true for the (B) to (C) connection.

    For example, synchrotron light sources, themselves unanticipated spinoffs from high energy physics research in the 50s and 60s, are big x-ray-producing accelerators too expensive to develop and run by any company, but have enabled research, both basic and applied, that have led to breakthroughs in medical imaging, drug development, solid state fabrication, improvements in magnetic storage media, etc etc.

  5. ThomasL

    Sean,

    I agree there are things that Government can do, and simply keeping things even would do far more than many realize. I also think that the a ->b -> c kind of thinking gets us in trouble no matter which direction one wants to go in that quite often the research goes nowhere at all (ask Edison how many ideas went in the garbage on the way to the light bulb….). We also forget that business have in the past done far more of this type of thing then they presently do (and one may wonder what led to that…).

    Though there are assuredly projects such as what you point out that do seem to require governmental resources. Never the less, as discussed in here often, science isn’t about getting a product, and I really hope no one who understands it even a little would want such a thing.

    The same goes towards government and the whole “create jobs” thinking as well however. Government does have a role -> in fact it has several. “Creating jobs” is not one of those roles and when we start to think of it that way we lose sight of what it is really supposed to be doing. Government can establish the nature of the environment to a large extent, and through taxation can encourage and discourage many things (though they seem to always end up at odds with themselves as a result as well using taxation as a deterrent, as at a minimum they become dependent on the income from the act they are trying to alter…). What many miss is that our recent mess was not the result of a lack of rules, even after all those they had rewritten or killed are taken into account, but that there was little if any enforcement of those rules that did exist (and such is still somewhat the case it would appear to many).

    Now we may have had problems, capitalism is known to have a few. They would never have gotten to be this large however. It takes a lot of turning a blind eye for an Enron or a Maddoff to happen, let alone everything we’ve got going on…

  6. Sean McCorkle

    ThomasL @6

    I also think that the a ->b -> c kind of thinking gets us in trouble no matter which direction one wants to go in that quite often the research goes nowhere at all (ask Edison how many ideas went in the garbage on the way to the light bulb….).

    True. In general, its a high risk gamble that it will pay off. Also, although I laid it out like a simple pipeline, a better description would be an extremely large web with enormous numbers of interconnections, between the many fields of basic and applied research, and applications (as an example, many developments in biology have rested on developments in physics and engineering techniques, and new and better commercial products). There are lots of examples of feedbacks in the system.

    science isn’t about getting a product, and I really hope no one who understands it even a little would want such a thing.

    And true. There have been examples of goal-oriented research, but thats usually not the way it works. Science is ultimately about understanding things at increasingly deeper levels. Yet, that we have seen enormous benefits fall out of this machine (which flow through the commercial sector in order to reach the public) is a very good reason for public financing of the venture.

    My fear is that, in the frenzy to reduce national debt (which is an important goal), research (which is a very small fraction of the budget) will be slashed into near non-existance without thinking through the consequences, and will effectively kill or mortally wound a goose that has been laying golden eggs for us for decades.

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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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