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The Sputnik Moment

February 15, 2011

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But 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.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

Barack Obama, State of the Union 2011

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama outlined the challenge and opportunity facing the US – a vision that places research and innovation at the centre of the effort to “[break] the back of this recession [and]  win the future”. Obama evokes the early 1960s, when the US poured money into space research after being surprised by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft, and suggests such an effort is necessary again for the US to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world”.

The reality is a little less impressive than the rhetoric – Obama’s 2012 federal budget includes major increases at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, but these are offset by major cuts in R&D budgets at the Departments of Defense and Agriculture. In all, the budget reflects a “zero-sum game” for R&D which, accounting for inflation, actually means a slight decrease. And even this may be too much for the Republican-controlled congress to accept – they’ve already suggested a $1-billion cut to the NIH budget, effective this fiscal year (for a breakdown, see here).

But reality aside, if the US is facing a “Sputnik moment”, does the prescription fit? Countries around the world are grappling with the central tenet of the argument: can investment in public R&D spur innovation?

In the Financial Page of this week’s New Yorker, James Surowiecki analyzes so-called Sputnikonomics and determines that government investment in R&D is essential and that now is the time to do it.

He makes a number of interesting arguments, among them that private R&D labs like GE, IBM, and AT&T drove innovative R&D for most of the 20th century – Bell Labs produced seven Nobel Prize winners in physics, for instance. But these labs thrived in an economic environment where companies enjoyed little competition and could take the long view. Now, pressure for short-term returns from shareholders precludes the sort of investment necessary to produce long-term innovation. Furthermore, companies in a competitive economic environment are less likely to invest in R&D because they are unable to capture the spillover benefits produced by their inventions.

The suggestion is that governments can take the long view and that communal spillover benefits are precisely what government investment in R&D should produce. While true in theory, governments are just as concerned with short-term results and pleasing voters as any publicly-traded company is with placating its shareholders. Examples used by Surowiecki – building the US interstate system, space-race investment resulting in GPS and microchips – provide no political benefit to the governments who initiate expensive projects which carry real political cost. And governments expect to see spillover benefits defined and captured – as any researcher who has filled out a collaborative or commercial R&D funding application can tell you.

But assuming that governments could be cajoled into long-term investments, now is the time to do it. Interest rates are historically low, so borrowing for these projects makes sense now. A weakened economy (particularly in the US) means labor and resource competition are also low. So now is the time to make the investments for dividends down the road.

Unfortunately, economic hard times lead many to beat the drums for fiscal restraint, and Republicans in particular seem ready to put up a fight against any new discretionary spending. So an opportunity for long-term gain is sacrificed to short-term budgetary concerns. There is a very real risk of the same thing happening in Canada on March 22 when the federal government here releases its budget.


Also, two community notes:

  1. Our good friends at Je Vote Pour La Science (JVPLS) are looking for input from the scientific community. A non-partisan, pro-science initiative of Agence Science-Presse, are seeking to include scientific issues in political discussions between candidates in upcoming federal, provincial, and municipal elections. They are sending lists of questions to leaders of respective parties to get their opinions on questions of public interest. They are seeking questions or comments on three themes: energy, toxicity, and forest products.
  2. also,a colleague is performing a survey on academic science publishing, and would appreciate input from members of the research community. You can access the survey here




One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    February 16, 2011 00:44

    The legacy of John F Kennedy’s moonshot wasn’t realised until 6 years after his assassination. If politicians wish to do right for their country, they absolutely need to look beyond the horizon, beyond the next election, beyond immediate needs, beyond current imagination. Tough quest!

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