A “Sputnik moment” is a historical reference to the launch of the first orbital satellite in October 1957. Though this was a triumph for humankind, it also triggered a panic in the United States, as we realized that the Soviet Union had a level of technical competence we hadn’t yet achieved (and which might be used for weapons). Sputnik made the U.S. wake up and realize the need for large-scale STEM education as a matter of national security. The response was the National Defense Education Act, whose provisions included, among other things:
- financial assistance to public schools for STEM programs
- funding for scholarships, graduate fellowships, and student loans
- testing programs to identify talented students
- funding for technical vocational training
Many believe that the NDEA was effective at making the U.S. one of the more scientifically and technically competent nations in the world. But it certainly shows the importance that the country’s leaders placed on STEM education.
Today, the U.S. is facing another kind of Sputnik moment — slower and less terrifying, perhaps, but no less crucial for our nation’s future. This is the shift of high-tech industries from North America to Asia.
U.S. prosperity depends on something called local multipliers. This means that stuff that we export brings in revenue from other countries, that then gets spread around the country via various service industries. In a 2010 paper, economist Enrico Moretti attempted to quantify this effect, and found the following:
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