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Dec. 15, 2010

Our “Sputnik Moment”

by Ira Flatow

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“50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment.”

President Obama, Forsyth Technical Community College — Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dec, 6, 2010
Sputnik, that beeping Soviet satellite, was a turning point in American history. It not only kicked off the race to the moon but it made the US examine how we educate and innovate. It signaled our leadership as a world power, measured not just in nuclear warheads but as a country that can take on a big project and unite us to one goal. For years to come, success would be measured against the phrase: “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we….” You fill in the blank.
 
President Obama believes we are once again, in a “Sputnik moment.” In a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College, he laid out a sobering and startling science state of the union address, describing how China is now where we were in the ’60s, ready to assume the worlds’ technology leadership.
 
“You go to Shanghai, China, and they’ve built more high-speed rail in the last year than we’ve built in the last 30 years. The largest private solar research and development facility in the world was recently opened in China -– by an American company. Today China also has the fastest trains and the fastest supercomputer in the world.”
 
It’s hard to keep up with the rapidly changing statistics; China has this, China leads in that. (You can find another eye-opening perspective on this at Michael Feldman’s HPC Blog.
 
In a race for the future, says the President, “America is in danger of falling behind. In a generation we have fallen from 1st place to 9th place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we’re ranked 18th out of 24 industrialized nations — 18th. We’re 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees we hand out. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.” You can read the whole text here and see if you agree.
 
The President is not pessimistic. He says that if we all work together and invest in our country’s educational and business infrastructure, we can remain competitive. But one wonders – in a country where half of us believe that people coexisted with dinosaurs and where some of the most influential Congressmen don’t believe in global warming – will this Sputnik moment, based in a belief in power of science, evolve into true competition with China, India and other world tech leaders. Or will our kids still continue to ask “If we can put a man on the moon…”
About Ira Flatow

Ira is the host and executive producer of Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.

 

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