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Are We a Nation of Homer Hickmans or Homer Simpsons?


On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union deployed Sputnik. The two-foot, 180-pound orb’s beeping was the starting gun of the space race and we in the U.S. seemed to be just putting our sneakers on. Despite President Eisenhower’s initial shrug, America freaked out – but in good way.

In under a year, a Democratic Congress and the Republican President created and made operational the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The National Defense Education Act, which not only jump started higher education in math and science here but also promoted the study of countries we realized were gaining on us, became law. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) came into being.  Later, of course, it became (Defense) DARPA, which yielded numerous technological advances, including what became the Internet.

When it came to being #1 in space, we didn’t wait for market forces to work their magic. In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 President Kennedy said the tripling of the space budget in a little over two years was worth it. There were new jobs, new companies and new discoveries.  We were in the race but the finish line came into clearer view when Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. “

The phrase “we choose” is interesting.  Not “this administration is committed to..,” or “our government will endeavor…,” or “I will ask for legislation…” It was, “We choose.”  It was as though he was merely reporting what the American people’s aspiration was. He gave voice to our confidence and made it a priority for his presidency.

The nation’s spirit at the time was captured well in “Rocket Boys,” the1998 memoir by Homer H. Hickman, Jr., later brought to the big screen so beautifully on “October Sky.” It is the true story of a West Virginia coal miner’s son whose imagination is propelled heavenward with tenacity and audacity, just like one of the spacecraft he would eventually help succeed as a NASA scientist.

Hickman was not an outlier. Stories abound of students, teachers, parents, and inventors who responded in the fall of 1957 to an historic call not to take up arms and die but to think, study, analyze, explore and invent. When we actually did go to the moon by end of the 1960s, we were fulfilling not Kennedy’s dream but our own.

Ah, the good old days.

Early this year, President Obama sought to tap our inner Homer Hickmans and declared we were facing a “Sputnik moment” and called for a new pursuit for the outer edges of technology and science that would enhance our competitiveness and prosperity. And how have we responded?

There has been no landmark legislation passed to revitalize innovation, invention and education.  In fact, the proposed fiscal year 2012 federal R&D investment of $148.9 billion represents a 0.3 percent decrease from the previous year, continuing the trend of flat federal funding for R&D since 2004. As the National Association for the Advance of Science has noted, if we were to restore federal support for research as a share of GDP to 1987 levels, we would have to increase federal support for R&D by almost $150 billion-per year. But that doesn’t seem likely. The political right calls even modest investments in cutting-edge R&D “socialism” and the left pans anything that benefits business as “corporate welfare.” The untruthful debate over tax cuts or spending cuts pushed the U.S. to the brink of defaulting on its debt.  (Interesting, we owe that money to some of the “third world” countries we started studying in the NDEA.) The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), with the mission of putting the U.S. at the lead in clean energy technology, regarded by many as the 21st century’s space race, has been struggling to survive because funds are so tight. Sure, there are billionaires who are practically begging to have their wealth confiscated and put to use upgrading America’s innovation capacity and schools, stepping up clean energy research and rebuilding our physical infrastructure. Still, a majority of the lawmakers voters have sent to Washington insist that cutting spending is the better course.

As ITIF pointed out in the Atlantic Century 2011, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 27 countries in the growth of college-aged adults with college degrees over the last decade. Yet, as we enter an election year, people seem to have affection for wealthy elites but are wary of academic elites.  Candidates who chuckle with skepticism about science fare about as well or even better than those who exalt it. It’s a tough time to be nerd, especially in politics.

Why the change? What is different about these times? Some would say we simply don’t have the money to dream as big as we could 50 years ago. Others would say the Sputnik analogy is not apt because the actual Sputnik reordered our thinking in a matter of hours, like Pearl Harbor, whereas the Sputnik moment of 2011 is the culmination of slow build– the proverbial frog in the cauldron.

Or have we lost some of our self-confidence and optimism? Perhaps Kennedy’s charisma and soaring rhetoric better matched the national spirit and vitality of 1962. Obama’s oratorical gifts notwithstanding, we seem not to believe the inspiring things he says about us. We insist our leaders talk about American “exceptionalism” (a word spellcheck doesn’t even recognize) but do we really feel exceptional? Or, as the baby boom reaches retirement (those who are able to afford to) and the population ages, we all seem imbued with a middle-aged sense of resentment and old-guy crankiness, as if we paid our dues and shouldn’t have to start over again to compete with the young upstarts from other countries who we helped launch. Let’s hope that is not the case.

Yes, we have debt but we also have wealth.  We can invest more in science, emerging technologies such as robotics, nanotechnology, and clean energy innovation. We can revamp our corporate tax code to make it a vehicle for innovation and global competiveness. We can take on predatory trade and economic practices by other countries.  We can reform education and immigration policies to train, attract and retain the top talent of the world– what we summarize as the four T’s– taxes, trade, technology and talent. ITIF has spelled this out in a sensible, non-partisan report in March 2011 and more recently outline some specific ideas on reforming corporate taxation and manufacturing strategy. This would not cost a fortune. However one calculates it, it would have to be less expensive than losing 5.5 million manufacturing jobs and 9.1% unemployment.  And certainly less than the $60.9 billion we spent on dieting in 2010, according to a national survey.

And we can be forgiven for being a little complacent. The Sputnik moment crept into our consciousness through thousands of news stories about declining test scores, offshoring, Asian tigers, downsizing, and other harbingers of doom that ran simultaneously with more hopeful stories of mapping the human genome, the latest mind-blowing electronic gadget, lethally accurate drones, and robots performing surgery. It was easy to believe that we are not facing an emergency but simply change. And change is something we adapt to, as we always have, even at great speed. Just look at how we mobilized after Pearl Harbor. But now is the time to realize the near complete economic collapse in  2008, the loss of one third of our wealth, and the prospect of a lost decade are as close to a Sputnik or a Pearl Harbor as we are likely to get.

Fortunately, we retain a measure of confidence that matches our innovative spirit and curiosity, work ethic, and indeed, greed. We still have a knack that Churchill saw in us for doing the right thing after exhausting all the other possibilities. Gallup polls show voters largely disapprove of their elected representatives in Washington – and that’s across party lines. Either office holders will change course or be forced to change jobs. Maybe after a few more election cycles, the wisdom of the political system will again reveal itself. And maybe the country’s spirit too.

The Greatest Generation passed the Sputnik generation a burning torch. The Sputnik moment generation needs to recognize the torch it got passed might go out unless they get its embers going again. Let’s hope President Obama had his finger on the pulse of that spirit in his third annual back-to-school speech a week ago. He said, “With all the challenges that our country is facing right now, we don’t just need you for the future; we actually need you now.  America needs young people’s passion and their ideas. We need your energy right now. I know you’re up to it because I’ve seen it.  Nothing inspires me more than knowing that young people all across the country are already making their marks. They’re not waiting. They’re making a difference now.”

Time for the Homer Simpsons to step aside and make way for the Homer Hickmans.

Image courtesy University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.


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