Sputnik was the driving force and gave the shock and momentum needed to revolutionize the country’s scientific and technological foundations. In recent years, government officials and lawmakers have called for a new “Sputnik moment” as they reckon with how to successfully compete economically and technologically with China. While a singular, transformative “Sputnik moment” has yet to occur, there is growing consensus in Washington that the U.S. has fallen or is at risk of falling behind China.
The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project is investigating the increasingly intertwined relationships between the technology sector and world politics. The Soviet Union heralded the arrival of the Space Age on October 4, 1957, when it launched the world’s first satellite into space from the desert grasslands of Kazakhstan. The launch of Sputnik 1 (a small aluminum ball below the beach ball) turned out to be a moment of change for the United States. It caused the US-Soviet space race, spurred new government agencies, and significantly increased federal R & D spending and funding for STEM education.
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The U.S. China competition is novel in many ways, but that doesn`t mean America`s way of competing has to be. To reclaim its inimitable role as a driver of American innovation, the U.S. government must muster the kind of energy it did in the aftermath of Sputnik — mobilizing the country`s remarkable talent, institutions and R&D resources — to successfully compete with China.
First, it`s important to revisit what happened 60 some years ago. In the months following the introduction of Sputnik, the US government has set up two new institutions.
In July 1958, Congress established NASA and passed the National Aerospace Law, which puts the country’s space program under civilian control. NASA’s main goal was to land a person on the moon, and a lot of money was given for it. Its budget increased by nearly 500% from 1961 to 1964, accounting for nearly 4.5% of federal spending at its peak. NASA took Americans to the moon and helped develop important technologies for a wide range of commercial applications. The federal government has also established the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) with the task of preventing future technological surprises.
His research and research has contributed to a variety of technologies that remain important to America’s economic competitiveness, including GPS, speech recognition, and most importantly, the key elements of the Internet. The introduction of
Sputnik also motivated the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 in 1958. NDEA has established the country’s first federal student loan program with federal funding for STEM and foreign language education. The NDEA clearly linked the promotion of education to meeting US defense needs and recognized it as an integral part of US national security.
Sputnik spurred massive growth in federal R&D spending, which was instrumental in creating today`s robust tech and startup community. The federal government was funding close to 70% of total U.S. R&D by the 1960s — more than the rest of the world combined. Government R&D investment has declined in the decades since, however. As the Cold War ended and the private sector started spending more on R&D, federal R&D spending as a percentage of GDP fell from about 1.2% in 1972 to approximately 0.7% in 2018.
As policymakers deliberate on how the U.S. should compete technologically, economically and militarily against China, they should heed the lessons learned in the Sputnik moment. Initially, Sputnik created a new system and provided political capital to increase spending on R & D and education, but many of these efforts were already in place. NASA builds on the work of its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and has had much preparation for NDEA regulation for some time. Sputnik provided shock and urgency, but momentum and a lot of footwork was already underway. Today, the US government must promise to make a sustainable investment in the science and technology infrastructure.
This is to ensure a strong foundation for innovation in the United States, regardless of the future challenges facing the country. Second, the federal government needs to set clear national goals for direct technology investment and encourage the public to contribute to these priorities. President Kennedy`s call to land a man on the moon was unambiguous, inspiring and provided direction for R&D investment. Policymakers should identify specific goals with measurable metrics for critical technology sectors, explaining how these goals will bolster American national security and economic growth.
Finally, while the government`s R&D investments helped spawn remarkable technological advancements, its approach for allocating and overseeing that spending was equally important. As Margaret O`Mara explains in her book, “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” federal funding flowed “indirectly” and “competitively,” giving the tech community “remarkable freedom to define what the future might look like” and “push the boundaries of the technologically possible.” The U.S. government must again take care that its investments fuel technological competitiveness without morphing into what could be conceived of as broadbased, inefficient industrial policy. The phrase “Sputnik moment” is often invoked in an attempt to spur government action and public involvement. And indeed, actions taken in Sputnik`s aftermath are illustrative of what the U.S. government can accomplish when its approach is unified and driven by clear objectives. Rarely, however, has America achieved comparable improvements to the country`s innovation base. That doesn`t have to be the case. After Sputnik, the U.S. government reinvigorated its science and technology base by investing in the people, infrastructure and resources that would ultimately establish American technological hegemony. A new Sputnik spirit today can power American technological competitiveness into the future. Time is important.
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