Last night, the president gave a speech that never directly mentioned the most pressing science-based issue of our time—global warming, climate change. I don’t like being so right in my prediction: Even I thought he’d say it once or twice at least.
At the same time, however, he announced a new national love affair with science, innovation, and clean energy, using a playbook that seems right out of the National Academy of Sciences’ now famous 2005 Rising Above the Gathering Storm report. And he capped it all off with a line of almost mythic potential: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
Could it really be? And can this approach—save the climate, the country, the economy, and pretty much everything through technological innovation—deliver on its own?
First, let’s recap what happened following the Soviet launch of Sputnik. It really did create a boom of investment in the sciences in the U.S., which in turn drove prosperity—but it was an investment centrally impelled by fear of an external enemy. As I wrote with Sheril Kirshenbaum in our book Unscientific America:
This is the context in which the National Science Foundation’s previously paltry research budget achieved liftoff, and in which NASA was created to power us to the moon. This is the context in which graduate students were given generous funding—under the National Defense Education Act—to pursue science and engineering careers. This is the context in which we renewed focus on science education in schools.
Essentially, President Obama wants us to recreate the same sense of urgency, and the same national unity, but without the same fear of another competitor country, unless that country is supposed to be China—which, the President noted, recently “became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.” Okay, that’s something of a spur…but it is not, historically speaking, a Sputnik. (And, making China into the enemy is a very problematic notion.)
Obama wasn’t even speaking in a national security frame last night when he invoked Sputnik. He was speaking in an economic one. The sense of shared threat was displaced from an external other to our own economic problems—joblessness and deficits.
And that’s the real trick: Is the yearning for national unity, in the wake of Tucson, enough to overcome this chief non-parallel in Obama’s Sputnik analogy? Because undoubtedly, investing in more clean energy research, and more research in general, will spur jobs and innovation. But will we remember to forget our differences in the meantime? Is there some glue that will hold us together? Given the way politics now operate in the U.S., it’s hard to be so optimistic.
Already, you can see how the push for inspiration and unity requires papering over really serious and divisive problems. Last night, for instance, president Obama didn’t just ignore climate change (which is at least kind of understandable, in the sense that we can’t pass a law to deal with it in the next two years). He also threw together wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, and even “clean coal” as the clean energy sources that he wants us living off by 2035. Well, it’s a nice notion, but for the moment clean coal remains an oxymoron, and there are reasons to suspect it may always be.
Don’t get me wrong—it was a deeply inspirational State of the Union, and I continue to be amazed at just how much this president understands and also adores science. And the Sputnik analogy remains powerful, because it does evoke a moment in the U.S. past where the country really proved its mettle–as it must again.
Let’s hope that’s where the analogies begin, rather than where they end.