Sputnik’ed Response

Oct 4th, 2007 | By | Category: Public Service

Sputnik orbited fifty years ago today–a tremendous accomplishment. But, let’s not mistake the meaning here. The Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite was both a fantastic technical achievement and a profound threat. If the Soviets could launch a new moon they could also hurl an atomic bomb across the globe. In the context of the late 1950’s, and under the very real threat of nuclear annihilation by a committed and dangerous foe, how did the country respond?

As my collegue and friend Tom Robey noted in todays PI:

Science emerged as the antidote for America’s shortcomings. Policymakers jumped to talk about science and, more important, to fund it: President Eisenhower established the position of Presidential Science Adviser; the House and Senate incorporated scientific review into their committee structures; Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency; and lawmakers quadrupled funding for the National Science Foundation. Most people agreed we needed to improve education to draw more young Americans into science and engineering.

In no small way, these decisions made America what it is today: the leader in technology, finance, medicine and economics. Prior to this push, science was largely a career for the wealthy, or patrons of the wealthy. By putting the full weight of the public coffers and general will behind research and academics, we became the first real scientific society and changed the course of the planet as a result.

How do today’s Republicans respond to our challenges–climate change, energy crunches, airline-transmitted pandemic illness, a world filled with hungry, bored and girlfriend-less teenage boys to name a few?

The office of the Science Adviser to the President has been moved out of the White House; the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was disbanded in 1995 after the Republican sweep of Congress; NASA has an image problem; science allocations lag behind inflation stifling innovation; and while more Americans than other nationalities win Nobel Prizes, those accolades go to scientists trained in a different era — the uncertain funding situation facing young scholars today is an impediment to many pursuing careers in science.

Even as a young scientist, coming to the end of my PhD training, I can’t easily recommend it as a path for younger students. The ever-tightening NIH budgets are only the start of troubles for a young American interested in science. Classrooms are under assault from throwback religious zealots; the President actively derides intellectualism, curiosity and scientific pursuits from the bully pulpit.

When I think of the alternative careers I selected against–the NSA, biotech, financial services, software engineering–and the challenges facing me as I become an American scientist, I feel like an anachronism. Thankfully I live in Seattle, an island of the earlier spirit in a sea of reactionary fear.

I’m here. You’re here. And I’m happy for that.