Can America Achieve Its Next Sputnik Moment? -TechCrunch
The TechCrunch Global Affairs project studies the increasingly intertwined relationships between the tech industry and global 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 balloon under the beach ball) turned out to be a moment of change for the United States. It sparked the US-Soviet space race, spurred new government agencies, and dramatically increased federal spending on R&D and funding for STEM education.
Competition between the United States and China is new in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the way the United States has to compete has to be. To resume its inimitable role as an engine of American innovation, the United States government must harness the kind of energy it deployed in the aftermath of Sputnik – mobilizing the nation’s remarkable talents, institutions and R&D resources – to successfully compete with China.
First, it is important to look back on what happened 60 years ago. In the months following the introduction of Sputnik, the US government established two new institutions.
Sputnik was the driving force and provided 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 question how to successfully compete economically and technologically with China. While a singular and transformative “Sputnik moment” has yet to take place, there is a growing consensus in Washington that the United States has or is likely to fall behind China.
In July 1958, Congress created NASA and passed the National Aerospace Act, which brought the nation’s space program under civilian control. The main objective of NASA was to land a person on the moon, and a lot of money was donated for that. Its budget grew almost 500% from 1961 to 1964, accounting for almost 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 also created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) with the mission of preventing future technological surprises.
Sputnik has spurred massive growth in federal spending on R&D, which has been instrumental in building a strong tech and startup community. The federal government funded nearly 70% of total US R&D in the 1960s, more than the rest of the world combined. However, public investment in R&D declined in the decades that followed. When the Cold War ended and the private sector began to spend more on R&D, federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP fell from around 1.2% in 1972 to around 0.7% in 2018.
His research and research have contributed to various technologies that remain important to the economic competitiveness of the United States, including GPS, voice recognition, and most importantly, key parts of the Internet. The introduction of
Sputnik also motivated the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 in 1958. The NDEA established the country’s first federal student loan program with federal funding for STEM and teaching of foreign languages. The NDEA has clearly linked the promotion of education to meeting the defense needs of the United States and has recognized it as an integral part of United States national security.
As policymakers deliberate on how the United States should compete technologically, economically and militarily with China, they should heed the lessons learned at the time of Sputnik. 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 Aeronautical Advisory Committee, and has been preparing extensively for the NDEA regulations for some time. Sputnik caused shock and urgency, but the momentum and a lot of footwork was already underway. Today, the US government must promise to make a sustainable investment in science and technology infrastructure.
This is to ensure a solid foundation for innovation in the United States, regardless of future challenges the country faces. Second, the federal government must set clear national goals for direct investment in technology and encourage the public to contribute to those priorities. President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon was unambiguous, inspiring and guiding R&D investments. Policymakers should identify specific goals with measurable measures for critical technology sectors, explaining how those goals will strengthen U.S. national security and economic growth.
Finally, while the government’s investments in R&D have helped generate remarkable technological advances, its approach to allocating and overseeing this spending was equally important. As Margaret O’Mara explains in her book “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America”, federal funding has flowed “indirectly” and “competitively”, giving the tech community “remarkable freedom to define what the future might look like. and “pushing back the limits of what is technologically possible”. The US government must once again ensure that its investments fuel technological competitiveness without turning into what could be conceived of as broad and inefficient industrial policy. The term “Sputnik moment” is often used in an attempt to stimulate government action and public participation. And indeed, the actions taken in the aftermath of Sputnik illustrate what the US government can accomplish when its approach is unified and guided by clear goals. Rarely, however, has America made comparable improvements to the country’s innovation base. It doesn’t have to be. After Sputnik, the US government reinvigorated its science and technology base by investing in the people, infrastructure, and resources that would ultimately establish US technological hegemony. A new Sputnik spirit today can propel America’s technological competitiveness into the future. Time is of the essence.
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- Can America Achieve Its Next Sputnik Moment? -TechCrunch
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