White House points to Sputnik to save tech

Soviet satellite becomes Obama's new rallying cry to keep Congress from cutting education and science funding

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is calling for more investment in science and technology, saying the "Sputnik moment is back" for the U.S., referring to the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite that's now synonymous with any foreign challenge to America's technical dominance.

Parts of Obama's speech today were very similar to an address last week by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who also referred to Sputnik. It was as if the two shared notes.

Sputnik Chu speech
One of Energy Secretary Steven Chu's slides from a speech he gave last week. Source: U.S. Department of Energy.

The underlying message of Obama's talk Monday was to keep Congress from slashing education and science funding.

Cutting science and technology investments is "like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine," said Obama.

Obama also cited a need to protect education, and pointed to a series of statistics that illustrate problems, such as the U.S.'s fall from first to ninth place globally in the proportion of young people with college degrees.

"In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That's just the truth," said Obama, speaking at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As Chu did, the president cited a few recent technology developments, some of which involved China.

Among other things, without naming the company, Obama cited the construction of the world's "largest private solar research and development facility" in China. He was likely referring to a 400,000-square-foot facility built by Applied Materials.

The President also cited China's development of a supercomputer that's now ranked as the world's fastest.

Obama didn't address offshore outsourcing directly, but he made it clear that other nations are competing for U.S. jobs.

"When global firms were asked a few years back where they planned on building new research and development facilities, nearly 80% said either China or India -- because those countries are focused on math and science, and they're focused on training and educating their workforce," Obama said.

Last week, Chu drew attention to the U.S. decline in high-tech manufacturing. In 1998, he said, the U.S. had about 25% of the world's technology export market; today it is about 12% to 13%.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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