America needs another Sputnik as China takes the lead in science

America needs another Sputnik as China takes the lead in science, by Ben MacIntyre.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, a new moonlet, a giant step for mankind. …

Sputnik sparked a scientific crisis of confidence in the West, shaking post-war US technological complacency to the core, stoking triumphalist Soviet propaganda and kicking off the Cold War space race.

More than that, it prompted the greatest single investment in science ever undertaken. Following Sputnik, money and energy poured into engineering, science and technological research in an educational great leap forward that unleashed an unprecedented wave of innovation on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Today the West needs another “Sputnik moment” to shake it out of its technological lethargy. Historically, such leaps tend to follow crises, rivalry or war. The next major scientific overhaul may be prompted by a Russian cyberattack, a North Korean dictator with a nuclear warhead or environmental disaster.

But the greatest technological challenge is likely to come from China, which accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s expenditure on scientific research and development, a rate increasing just as the US is reducing such spending.

Sixty years on, it is easy to forget the astonishment and fear that greeted the news of Sputnik: the Soviet Union had not just won the race to launch a satellite, it had done so in secret.

“Sputnik triggered a period of self-appraisal rarely equalled in modern times,” wrote Wernher von Braun, the German leader of US space efforts. “Overnight, people questioned our education system, our industrial strength, our science and technology, even the moral fibre of our people.” (Braun’s use of the first person plural is notable: he had previously invented the Nazis’ V-2 rocket system.)

The weapons gap was one source of alarm but the education gap was another. In the late 1950s, the USSR was training two or three times as many scientists as the US. Moscow crowed that Sputnik (which translates as “fellow traveller on Earth”) proved how “the freed and conscious labour of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man’s dreams into reality”.

Our society, led by PC arts graduates, has instead taken the lead in gender re-assignment, deploying windmills to influence weather, and Muslim outreach.

hat-tip Stephen Neil