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Science shifting in 'Sputnik moment'

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Sputnik was a small satellite with a big impact on science. Click to see a slideshow about the start of the Space Age.

President Barack Obama wasn't even born when the last "Sputnik moment" took place — and despite tonight's State of the Union declaration that another such turning point in science, technology and innovation is upon us,  America's post-Sputnik experience almost certainly won't be repeated. There's simply not enough money or political will to spend on an Apollo-scale engineering endeavor. But the past year's political changes may well bring a more pragmatic shift in science policy as well.

Among the fields likely to benefit the most: clean-energy research, not only relating to renewables such as solar and wind, but also taking in nuclear, natural gas and "clean coal" ... high-speed rail and high-speed wireless Internet ... and support for science education. 


But first, about Sputnik: Less than half of the U.S. population was alive when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, so it's hard to convey the sense of paranoia — and determination — that was sparked by the realization that your perceived mortal enemy could loft a beeping satellite or a nuclear weapon over your homeland. (Reading the comments on this "Sputnik Memories" item might help.)

The challenge of Sputnik led to the creation of NASA and the true start of America's space effort, as well as President John Kennedy's vow to send Americans to the moon and bring them back safely by the end of the 1960s. For a decade, the U.S.-Soviet space race was the farthest front of the Cold War. Finally, in 1969, America won that race at an estimated cost of $100 billion in current dollars.

"After investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets, we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs," Obama said tonight. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

To be sure, America needs new jobs, new industries and new innovations — but that isn't what motivated America's response to Sputnik. It was fear of annihilation, pure and simple.

A more pragmatic agenda
Now, about Obama's agenda for science, technology and innovation: "The general priorities of the Obama administration have been pretty consistent with priorities in the past," Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told me in advance of Obama's speech.

The levels of federal money budgeted for research and development took a sharp rise in the early years of the George W. Bush administration,  primarily in defense and health R&D. But over the past few years, the AAAS' analysis shows a more gradual increase. The proposed R&D outlay for fiscal 2011 is $148.1 billion, a slight decrease from 2010.

The top priorities for research and development break down into these five categories, Clemins said:

  • Jobs, competitiveness and innovation
  • Health
  • Energy
  • National security
  • Environment, natural resource protection and climate change

"The one that seems to be coming to the forefront is energy," Clemins said. "The administration keeps talking about the clean-energy economy, new technologies to help jump-start economy."

Clean energy received the most specific attention in Obama's State of the Union Address. He repeated his goal to put 1 million electric vehicles on the nation's roads by 2015, and set a new ultra-long-range goal of having 80 percent of America's electricity coming from clean-energy sources by 2035. (By that time, it's worth noting, Obama also aims to have astronauts going into Martian orbit.)

"Some folks want wind and solar," he said. "Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

Obama said Congress could cover cost of developing clean-energy technologies by eliminating "the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies." It's likely to be far more difficult, however, to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on that part of the innovation equation.

Obama set a goal of extending high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans by 2015, and giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail by 2035.

He also said the country should prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math over the next 10 years. Increases in education funding can be a tough sell, particularly since Obama is insisting on a five-year freeze in domestic spending, but today's dismal news about the state of science education in America just might serve as a wakeup call.

The White House made a symbolic nod to science education by seating four outstanding science students in the House gallery tonight:

  • Amy Chyao, a high-school junior from Richardson, Texas, who won first place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for developing a new cancer drug.
  • Brandon Ford, a junior from Philadelphia who was part of the West Philly Hybrid X team that competed in the Automotive X Prize.
  • Diego Vasquez, a community-college student from Phoenix who was part of a team that won a Lemelson-MIT Program grant for designing a motorized chair for people with disabilities.
  • Mikayla Nelson, a high-school freshman from Billings, Mont., who helped develop a prize-winning solar car design for the National Science Bowl.

"We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair, that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline," Obama said. Opinion analysts who were monitoring the speech for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research said the focus-group response to that line was almost "off the charts."

Generally speaking, the minute-by-minute response from a mix of 50 Democratic and Republican swing voters suggested that the speech was "a personal triumph for the president," the company's chairman and CEO, Stan Greenberg, told reporters.

Energy over environment
Clemins said energy initiatives stood the best chance of getting a sympathetic hearing in Congress. "Republicans tend to be more on the energy security side of energy policy — to try to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to manage our resources smartly. ... There's definitely agreement that energy is a policy that needs to be put forward," he said.

More emphasis may well be placed on "really trying to get a lot of the energy discoveries that were invented here actually put into the economy here," Clemins said. The federal government has "done a poor job of keeping the manufacturing of these technologies over here," he added.

Obama made the same observation in his speech, noting that China has become home to the world's largest private solar research facility as well as the world's fastest computer.

But there are also success stories, such as the stimulus boost that was given to America's battery manufacturing industry, which is key to the success of electric cars. "The percentage increased in terms of how much battery technology was produced here," Clemins said. The Energy Department projects that the annual production of electric-car batteries will rise to 50,000 by the end of this year, and 500,000 by 2015.

So if the White House and Congress will be devoting more attention to energy policy, which of the R&D priorities on Clemins' list will get less attention? In light of the GOP takeover in the House and the erosion of the Democrats' majority in the Senate, Clemins speculates with good reason that climate change policy and environmental protection will lose out.

The numbers to back up Obama's initiatives are due to be released next month as part of the White House's budget proposal for fiscal 2012. Clemins is already venturing a guess as to the size of the proposed R&D investment. "I wouldn't say that we'd see increases," he said, "but it'd be less of a decline than average in a shrinking budget."

Back to the Sputnik moment
So what about the space effort, which was the prime beneficiary of 1957's Sputnik moment? With the imminent end of the space shuttle program, NASA is facing a challenging transition over the next year. The space agency is turning to commercial launch providers to fill the gap — and strangely enough, the rise of private-sector spaceflight has itself been compared to a "Sputnik moment."

Right now, NASA's budget for this fiscal year is still in flux, and it's not yet certain whether the space agency will get the money needed to fly three more shuttle missions as scheduled. But Clemins suspects that, at least in the GOP-led House, the space agency will find a more sympathetic ear ... just as it did in the 1960s. He noted that the House Science and Technology Committee was renamed the Science, Space and Technology Committee. Committee Chairman Ralph Hall happens to be from Texas, a state that serves as the home for Johnson Space Center. A Texan is also the committee's ranking Democratic member.

"Indications are that space will probably see a heightened profile in the science and technology realm," Clemins said.

So maybe Obama's reference to a "Sputnik moment" isn't that far off after all.

Update for 12:15 a.m. Jan. 26: Here are two relevant responses to Obama's speech. The first is an excerpt from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's blog posting:

"Tonight, President Obama delivered a powerful State of the Union message to the nation. His focus on innovation, education and building are the foundations for our future success as a nation – and the key to economic recovery and long-term fiscal stability.

"At NASA, we’re making contributions in all of these areas. Our education initiatives inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Our groundbreaking work on innovative technologies to solve some of the greatest challenges we face is why people turn to NASA for help in times of crisis, whether it’s firefighters in California or rescue workers in Chile trying to save trapped miners. And as we continue to maintain our world leadership in human spaceflight, we are working to help build the space transportation systems of tomorrow, incentivizing commercial companies to compete in the space marketplace and reducing our costs. Fifty years ago, another young President propelled a fledgling space agency on a bold, new course that would push the frontiers of exploration to new heights. The 21st-century course that President Obama has set our agency on will foster new industries that create jobs, pioneer technology innovation, and inspire a new generation of explorers through education – all while continuing our fundamental mission of exploring our home planet and the cosmos. ..."

And now, a snippet from Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology:

"Tonight the president focused on 'America winning,' by leading the world in innovation.  But leading the world in innovation must start with a strategy that fosters private investment and economic growth.  Too many of this administration’s policies have been detrimental to business and to keeping jobs in the U.S. ...

"Absent from the President’s speech, apart from mentioning Sputnik as a metaphor, was any vision for our nation’s space agency.  NASA’s exploration program has been paramount to securing America’s lead in the global economy and spurring innovation.  So many technological advancements have stemmed from an ambitious, goal-oriented space program.  I am disappointed that the president used this moment only to reflect on NASA’s history, rather than promoting a strong vision for the future of space exploration.  This Thursday is officially designated as 'A Day of Remembrance' for the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger tragedies; a day to reflect on those national heroes who lost their lives.  We should honor them by carrying on their legacy and ensuring that America 'keeps winning' in space exploration and scientific discovery."

More on the State of the Union and innovation:


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