by Gary Beach

Where’s Our 21st Century Sputnik?

Mar 12, 20083 mins

Bill Gates testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology today where he made several good recommendations about how our country needs more money to fund math/science education and basic research. More on his H1-B visa recommendation later in this post.

What was more interesting to me about today’s session was why it was being held in the first place. The committee held the hearing to mark the 50th anniversary of its founding six months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into space in the fall of 1957.

The fear created by the intercontinental ballistic missile the Soviets used to launch Sputnik into space (Sputnik could just as easily have been a nuclear warhead) caused President Eisenhower to quadruple the funding for the National Science Foundation, create NASA and – excuse the pun – provide President Kennedy his launching pad for his Rice University speech where he challenged Americans to send a man to the moon and return him safely “not because it was easy, but because it was hard”. A year after that speech – hold on to your keyboard – the “intergallatic computer network” that became DARPAnet in 1969 ,and eventually the internet about 12 years later, was founded.

The rocket that launched Sputmik caused pain to our nation’s pride and security. And we responded in marvelous fashion.

What’s our 21st century Sputnik? Is it global terrorism? I don’t think so. Why? Because while the terror threat to our national security is real, and certainly has caused countless pain across America, because the terrorists are largely nationless cowards, it is hard to marshall our national will to collectively respond to the threat like we did with Sputnik.

But there is a pain we all feel every single day of our lives. A pain that with a strong leader in Washington marshalling the talents of Americans, we could rise up, stare down and create a better world for all to live in.

And give millions of Americans reasons to opt for professional careers, and teaching careers, in math and science.

The Sputnik of the 21st century, my friends, is the world’s overwhelming dependence on fossil fuel, particularly oil, to power the global economy.

That should be the outcome leaders like Bill Gates and others should be calling for. The coming 50 plus years will be ripe for innovative, alternative solutions to fossil fuel dependency. And, bright, innovative Americans who invent these solutions will become 21st century Bill Gates’ with billions lining their wallets. And probably preventing future superpower conflicts over commodities like oil.

On November 5th America will elect a new president. He, or she, must set out a truly ambitious program, not unlike going to the moon and back, that challenges young people in America to opt for those careers in math and science…that challenges future Congress’ to fund more money for basic research just like Congress did 51 years ago.

If our new president can clearly, forcefully and articulately lay out this vision, in short order tens of thousands of additional young Americans will heed the call.

And with their efforts each day lessening our country’s dependency on fossil fuel, this new generation of American innovators will likewise lessen our country’s dependency on raising H1B visa caps in the United States.

And just maybe one of those innovators will be called to testify in 2057 in front of the Science and Technology Committee’s 100th anniversary.