Will today’s financial meltdown be this generation’s Sputnik?

I owe my career path to a metallic sphere that weighed about 185 pounds and was slightly larger than a big beach ball. Launched by Russian scientists on October 4, 1957, Sputnik-1 had a profound effect on American culture, education, and science. As the first satellite in outer space, it shocked the American public and its political leadership. Fortunately, the Sputnik scare served as the catalyst for a strong and broad emphasis on science and engineering that influenced a generation of American students–including me.

I celebrated my second birthday while Sputnik was orbiting the earth in 1957. When I was in first grade, my class gathered in the back of the school auditorium to watch John Glenn’s historic space flight. My high school textbooks in physics (PSSC Physics) and chemistry (CHEM Study) were developed in the aftermath of Sputnik and adopted widely across the country. Although I realized early on (shortly after I got my first pair of glasses in second grade) that I wasn’t going to grow up to be an astronaut, I could become a scientist—an occupation that was highly respected and sought after in those days.

The post-Sputnik fervor, of course, didn’t last forever. As icons of American culture and success, the astronauts and scientists of the 1960s were replaced, forty years later, by Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers. In 2007, according to a survey conducted by the Harvard Crimson, of the Harvard seniors graduating that year and heading directly to the workforce, half of them (47 %) were heading into jobs with consulting firms and financial-sector companies. Yes, you read that right—47%!!

I expect that the survey results in 2009 will be quite different.

Just as Sputnik shocked American society into re-evaluating its priorities, the current financial meltdown will be forcing similar re-evaluations by a generation of students. Where will America’s best and brightest students be heading over the next generation?

The stimulus bill being passed today on Capitol Hill includes significant new funding for science and technology. President Obama promised in his inaugural speech to “restore science to its rightful place.” If we slog our way out of the current financial crisis, the solutions to the looming crises of the next generation (e.g., health care, energy, and climate change) will all require science and engineering.

We’ll need bright, creative scientists and engineers, of course. But perhaps more importantly, we’ll need a general public and citizenry that values and rewards innovation, invention, and success in areas other than just financial services.

It’s time for STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Math) leaders and educators to make a difference again in the future of our country. It’s time to “step up to the plate.” And I don’t mean home plate on a baseball field. Forget that tired, old sports metaphor. I’m referring to the “plates” we’ll find in laboratories, nature, and classrooms. It’s time to step up to agar bacterial plates, tectonic plates, and thin layer chromatography plates.

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Published in: on February 13, 2009 at 9:21 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post! Couldn’t agree more!

    And now for the shameless plug – here’s a great video we put together mixing Monty Python with chromatography: http://www.AdventuresOfAna.com

    Thanks for all you do to promote good chemistry!

    Ken Grant
    Director of Sales and Marketing
    http://www.thinlayer.com
    twitter.com/kengrantde

  2. Ken,
    Thanks for the link to the Monty Pythonesque video. Being a fan of “The Holy Grail” movie, I really enjoyed your spin on it. It’s good to see science mixed with humor.

    — Randy Wedin (“The Alchemist”)

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