FROM MICHAEL ASHCROFT IN THE SCIENCE POLICY CENTRE…

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, shattering the established belief that the US led the world in space technology. This shock led to the space race and the many benefits – technology, innovation and education – associated with it.

President Obama noted in his recent State of the Union address that this century’s “Sputnik moment” is again based on technology, as China and India take giant leaps while the US risks being left behind. The President is trying to convince the American people that their prosperity tomorrow needs education and innovation now.

He focused particularly on energy policy, a thorny topic at the best of times, but made all the more complicated in the US by the influence of the oil industry in government. And actions speak louder than words, as the President wants to remove public subsidy to Big Oil, and redirect it towards new technologies. At a time when government spending and interference in the status quo are under intense scrutiny from the American right, this in itself could spark wider political debate.

The President’s goals are set very high – 80% of US electricity from renewable sources in 2035 and a million electric vehicles on the road in 2015. Without public support though, these goals are hollow.

Framing the need for action in this way, by conjuring the imagery of the American dream, is a clever tactic. Previous attempts at increasing public support in clean energy technology, for example, have proved relatively unsuccessful. Climate change and dependency on foreign oil are, apparently, not good enough reasons to consider alternatives seriously.

Setting the American dream against the American spirit could see an interesting clash of values. The American dream is primarily about freedom, letting hard-working people achieve their own prosperity. Telling the American people they cannot do certain things – anything that emits CO2 – is against that freedom, and is certain to provoke a defensive response.

The American spirit, the enthusiasm and hard work embodied by the space race, is the way the American dream was realised in the first place. Framing the issue in terms of being beaten by India and China may just spur the American spirit back into action, providing those much-needed improvements in education, innovation and policy.

If the American people can be persuaded that the future President Obama depicts is worth fighting for, the plan might just work. The space race provided much of the technology we take for granted today – just imagine what a renewed sense of urgency could do for innovation today.

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