Can America Fulfill Its Next Sputnik Moment?

the TechCrunch Global Affairs project explores the increasingly intertwined relationship between the technology sector and world politics.

The Soviet Union ushered in the space age when they launched the the first satellite in the world on October 4, 1957 from a desert steppe in Kazakhstan into space. The start of Sputnik I – a small one Aluminum ball, not greater than a Water polo – turned out to be a transformative moment for the United States. It triggered the American-Soviet space race, served as the impetus for new ones government Institutions, and failed substantial increases in federal R&D spending and financing for STEM training.

Sputnik was a driving force, providing the shock and momentum required to revolutionize the country’s science and technology base. In the past few years, government Officer and the legislature have called for a new “Sputnik moment” in order to compete successfully with China economically and technologically. While a singular, transformative “Sputnik moment” is still pending, there is growing consensus in Washington that the USA has fallen behind China or is threatening to fall behind.

The competition between the US and China is new in many ways, but that doesn’t mean it has to be America’s way of competition. to reclaim Because of its inimitable role as the engine of American innovation, the U.S. government must muster the energy it has spent after Sputnik – mobilizing the country’s remarkable talent, institutions, and R&D resources – to successfully compete with China.

First of all, it is important to review what happened 60 years ago. In the months after the launch of Sputnik, the US government created two new institutions. congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of July 1958, which established NASA and placed the country’s space program under civilian control. NASA’s main goal was to land a man on the moon and a lot of money was given for that. His budget almost increased 500% from 1961 to 1964, almost 4.5% of federal spending At its peak. NASA brought Americans to the moon and contributed to the development of. at Main technologies with wide commercial application.

The federal government too established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) with the mission to avoid future technological surprises. His research and work contributed to one Variety of technologies which are still critical to America’s economic competitiveness, including GPS, speech recognition, and most importantly, the essential elements of the Internet.

The launch of Sputnik also prompted the adoption of the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 NDEA dedicated federal funds to STEM and foreign language teaching and founded the first. of the country Federal student loan Program. The NDEA explicitly linked the promotion of education with meeting American defense needs and recognized it as an integral part of US national security.

Sputnik drove massive growth in federal R&D spending, which has been instrumental in creating today’s robust technology and startup community. The federal government financed just under 70% of all U.S. R&D in the 1960s – more than that rest of the world combined. However, government R&D investment has declined in the decades since then. As the Cold War ended and the private sector started spending more on R&D, federal R&D spending became a percentage of GDP fell from around 1.2% in 1972 to around 0.7% in 2018.

As policymakers ponder how the US should compete technologically, economically, and militarily against China, they should heed the lessons of the Sputnik moment.

While Sputnik on the one hand provided the political capital to create new institutions and increase spending on R&D and education, basis for many of these efforts were already under way. NASA built on their work predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and preparations for many regulations in the NDEA were in progress moving for some time. Sputnik provided shock and urgency, but the momentum and much of the footwork was already underway. Today, the US government should commit to making sustained investments in its science and technology base – to ensure a strong foundation for American innovation, no matter what future challenges the country may face.

Second, the federal government should set clear national targets for direct technology investments and encourage the public to contribute to these priorities. President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon was clear, inspiring, and directional for R&D investment. Policy makers should identify specific goals with measurable metrics for critical technology sectors and explain how those goals will strengthen US national security and economic growth.

While the government’s R&D investment has contributed to remarkable technological advances, its approach to allocating and monitoring that expenditure has been 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 as to what the future might look like” and “to push the boundaries of what is technically possible.” . “The US government must once again ensure that its investments promote technological competitiveness without turning into broad-based, inefficient industrial policies.

The term “Sputnik moment” is often used to encourage government action and public participation. Indeed, the actions taken after Sputnik are an example of what the US government can achieve when its approach is coherent and guided by clear goals. However, America has seldom achieved comparable improvements in the country’s innovation base. It doesn’t have to be. According to Sputnik, the U.S. government revitalized 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 bring US technological competitiveness into the future. Time is of the essence.
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