The Silent Sputnik

Feb 122007
Authors: Daniel GibsonReinemer

I’m haunted by a front-page article from the Nov. 22, 1957, issue of the Collegian.

Fifty years ago, the Soviets launched Sputnik I and embarrassed the United States by demonstrating superior technological achievement.

Sputnik was also a shock because it jolted us from our laurels. It was thunderous proof our rivals were at least as talented than we were.

The zeitgeist was not lost on Marilyn Bush, who described the response to the event in the Collegian. President Eisenhower called for an increase in scientists to ensure our competitive advantage in the emerging race with the Soviets.

Importantly, as Marilyn noted, the “the federal government, local and state governments, and the entire citizenry of the United States” must be involved to prepare the nation for “those occupations needed for the survival of our country.”

The government reacted diligently. In the years that followed, NASA was created, federal spending in science and technology increased, and education in science and math was given a new emphasis.

Twelve years after the launch of Sputnik I, the national investment in research and education came to fruition when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

We won.

Perhaps the most tangible parallel in the modern struggle for technological superiority was China’s recent destruction of their own orbiting satellite, an action that raised eyebrows in defense and diplomatic circles.

Since the U.S. relies heavily on such satellites for military affairs and communication, China’s action was an unsubtle hint about the path they may pursue in the event of a military conflict.

While Sputnik caused a commotion in defense and education groups, the Chinese missile launch – as well as the rise of an increasingly educated class of engineers and scientists in China and India – has created little more than a comparative murmur.

And why should it? After all, the United States is home to the best universities in the world. An index of the best universities in the world appeared in The Economist in 2005; all but three of the top 20 universities were located in the United States.

(The rankings, compiled by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, were designed to focus on large research universities and based largely on publications in prestigious journals, number of citations, and Nobel Prizes and Fields Awards among faculty and alumni.)

Our universities our serving us well, but there are indications we simply lack the interest needed to sustain them.

The National Science Board tracks the status of science and engineering education in the United States.

In “America’s Pressing Challenge,” a report accompanying the NSB’s report, the authors noted “not since the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite . has the need to improve science and mathematics education in America been as clear and as urgent as it is today.”

In 2004, the NSB reported worrisome trends in the numbers of U.S. citizens receiving doctoral degrees in key science and engineering fields. Some evidence from the 2006 report indicates there may be an improvement.

Overall, too few U.S. citizens are pursuing doctorates in vital fields.

One bright spot is the rise in foreign-born students who are increasingly attracted to American schools for graduate educations. Many stay in the United States after receiving doctorates and contribute to our schools and economy.

But what haunts me is the possibility we might let our vast ability and potential erode.

Five decades ago, we saw the writing on the wall and reacted with appropriate concern. Today, groups like the NSB are offering the same warnings, but the response from our citizens is not the same.

Too confident in our status and unwilling to recognize signs of trouble on the horizon, we may find ourselves losing a global race for technological innovation.

The next Sputnik has already happened. Remember that, and Marilyn’s words, as you think about the next fifty years.

Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. His column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to

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