The TechCrunch Global Affairs project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech industry and global politics.
The Soviet Union launched the space age by propelling the the world’s first satellite into space from a desert steppe in Kazakhstan on October 4, 1957. The launch of Sputnik I – a small aluminum orb, not bigger than a Beach ball – proved to be a moment of transformation for the United States. It started the American-Soviet space race, gave the impetus to new government establishments, and precipitate substantial increases in federal spending on R&D and funding for STEM education.
Sputnik was a galvanizing force, providing the shock and momentum needed to revolutionize the country’s science and technology base. During the last years, government officials and lawmakers have called for a new “Sputnik moment” as they wonder how to successfully compete economically and technologically with China. While a singular and transformative “Sputnik moment” has yet to take place, there is a growing consensus in Washington that the United States has or is likely to fall behind China.
Competition between the United States and China is new in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the way the United States has to compete has to be. AT to recover its inimitable role as an engine of American innovation, the United States government must muster the kind of energy it deployed in the aftermath of Sputnik – mobilizing the nation’s remarkable talents, institutions and R&D resources – to compete successfully China.
First, it is important to look back on what happened 60 years ago. In the months following the launch of Sputnik, the US government created two new institutions. Congress pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958, creating NASA and placing the country’s space program under civilian control. The main objective of NASA was to land a man on the moon, and he was given a lot of money to do so. Its budget has increased by almost 500% from 1961 to 1964, representing almost 4.5% federal spending at its peak. NASA took Americans to the moon and helped develop major technologies with wide commercial application.
The federal government also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (today the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) with the mission to avoid future technological surprises. His research and work have contributed to a variety of technologies that remain essential to America’s economic competitiveness, including GPS, voice recognition and, most notably, the fundamentals of the Internet.
The launch of Sputnik also prompted the adoption of the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). NDEA dedicated federal funds to STEM and foreign language education and established the first federal student loan program. The NDEA has explicitly linked the promotion of education to meeting the defense needs of the United States, recognizing that it is an integral part of United States national security.
Sputnik has spurred massive growth in federal spending on R&D, which has been instrumental in building today’s strong tech and startup community. The federal government funded nearly 70% of total US R&D in the 1960s – more than rest of the world combined. However, public investment in R&D declined in the decades that followed. As the Cold War ended and the private sector began to spend more on R&D, federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP fell from about 1.2% in 1972 to about 0.7% in 2018.
As policymakers deliberate on how the United States should compete technologically, economically and militarily with China, they should heed the lessons learned at the time of Sputnik.
First, while Sputnik provided the political capital to create new institutions and increase spending on R&D and education, the preparatory work because many of these efforts were already in place. NASA has relied on the work of its predecessor, the National Aeronautical Advisory Committee and preparations for many of the provisions of the NDEA have been moving for a while. Sputnik caused shock and urgency, but the momentum and much of the legwork was already underway. Today, the US government should commit to a sustained investment in its science and technology base, ensuring a solid foundation for US innovation, regardless of the challenge the country faces in the future.
Second, the federal government should establish clear national goals to guide technology investments and motivate the public to contribute to those priorities. President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon was unambiguous, inspiring and guiding R&D investments. Policymakers should identify specific goals with measurable measures for critical technology sectors, explaining how those goals will strengthen U.S. national security and economic growth.
Finally, while the government’s investments in R&D have helped generate remarkable technological advances, its approach to allocating and overseeing this spending was equally important. As Margaret O’Mara explains in his book, “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” federal funding has flowed “indirectly” and “competitively,” giving the tech community “remarkable freedom to define what the future might look like” and ” push the limits of what is technologically possible. “The US government must once again ensure that its investments fuel technological competitiveness without turning into what could be conceived of as broad and inefficient industrial policy.
The term “Sputnik moment” is often used in an attempt to stimulate government action and public participation. And indeed, the actions taken in the aftermath of Sputnik illustrate what the US government can accomplish when its approach is unified and guided by clear goals. Rarely, however, has America made comparable improvements to the country’s innovation base. It doesn’t have to be. After Sputnik, the US government reinvigorated its science and technology base by investing in the people, infrastructure, and resources that would ultimately establish US technological hegemony. A new Sputnik spirit today can propel America’s technological competitiveness into the future. Hurry up.