Is COVID-19 Our New Sputnik Moment?

American universities are troubled institutions.  More serious than the attention-getting P.C. madness, however, has been the subversion of intellectual standards — armies of "diversity and inclusion" bureaucrats tasked with admitting unqualified students academically dependent on easy-to-pass fluff courses in gender studies and the like.  Add grade inflation and, if that fails, endless tutoring to push troubled students to meaningless degrees.  If that, too, fails, eliminate admissions tests to end "white privilege."  

So far, efforts to reverse this intellectual decline have fallen short, but, as odd as it may seem, the COVID-19 virus outbreak and the attendant financial crisis offer an intriguing never-waste-a-crisis possibility.  A possible parallel exists with the 1957 "Sputnik moment," an event that likewise inspired panic — the sudden dread of being defenselessness against Soviet nuclear missiles.

Specifically, today's pandemic has raised troubling issues regarding America's dependence on the Chinese pharmaceutical supply chain, our declining technological prowess vis-à-vis China and the long-delayed realization that that China with its penchant for intellectual property theft, hacking, and rampant counterfeiting is a hostile rival, not our friend.  This fresh reality understood, does it really make sense to require top universities to squander millions on guaranteed-to-fail social engineering while China races ahead technologically?

The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call, a message that pushing our universities to pursue racial/sex equality at the expense of intellectual rigor guarantees national disaster.  Time to acknowledge that forcing chemistry professors to waste untold hours "diversifying" their now dumbed down syllabus imposes opportunity costs that hardly burden our Chinese rivals. 

Recall the "Sputnik moment."  When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I on October 4 of 1957, not only was it a national humiliation (Russian science was believed to be "too backward" for such an accomplishment),but propelling it into orbit demonstrated that "the Reds" possessed an unstoppable rocket capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear payload.  The shock re-awakened memories of Pearl Harbor.  That Sputnik was visible in the night sky left no doubt — we were behind, and way behind.

Fixing our supposedly defective education system was central, and the response was quick.  Congress created a blue-ribbon panel to investigate, military notables such as Admiral Hyman Rickover sounded the alarm, and newspapers demanded action.  A Gallup poll of the day found that 70% of respondents believed that high school students should work harder.  Congress passed  the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958, a once unthinkable federal intervention in educational funding.  Key provisions included loans to future teachers in the sciences and mathematics plus grants to states to upgrade what is today called STEM fields.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was funded to help close the technology gap while allocations for the National Science Foundation (NSF) skyrocketed

More significant was a cultural shift.  Nerdiness was now celebrated, and schools top to bottom ramped up their advance programs for the scientifically gifted.  There were TV quiz shows like the College Bowl featuring elite college students outsmarting each other for prizes.  A story in Life magazine depicted American high schoolers dancing all night while their Soviet counterparts mastered calculus.  Newly elected President Kennedy made technology — the race to the moon — a centerpiece of his administration.  Meanwhile, the influx of Baby-Boomers into college meant that high standards were absolutely necessary to manage overflowing enrollment.  In short, brain power was linked to national survival, and it was all hands-on deck to beat the Russians, and nobody cared that the wizards of science were nearly all white males.

Todays' likely "Sputnik moment" in education will be the realization that non-U.S. students, especially those from China, constitute much of our STEM brain power needed to fight this and countless others health battles.

Begin with the numbers.  In 2017, the proportion of non-U.S. full-time graduate students enrollees in electrical engineering was 81%; in computer science 79%;  in mechanical engineering 62%; in chemical engineering 57%; and metallurgical/materials engineering, 55%,  If sub-divided by country of origin, the Chinese domination of these non-U.S. students is clear.  In 2017–18, there were some 162,000 Chinese graduate students in STEM fields (and 201,000 in non-STEM disciplines).  The runners up were Indians (154,000) with a huge gap among other nationalities — Saudi Arabia with 20,000 was in third place, 17,000 from South Korea, and so on.  Yes, many Americans are now flocking to high-tech fields, but the data show even larger surges among those from abroad. 

Now imagine the "Sputnik Moment" in January of 2121

Before a massive crowd at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, two Chinese virologists, both MIT Ph.D.s announce cures for COVID-19 and a 100% effective vaccine.  President Xi also has an important announcement.  Under his new "讓中國再次偉大 ("Make China Great Again") initiative, the thousands of Chinese at foreign universities would soon be returning home to continue their research at dozens of state-of-the-art facilities financed by funds otherwise spent buying U.S. debt.  In five years, he promises, China will be the world center of advanced scientific research.  He wishes America best of luck with their home-grown talent.       

The likely outcome of President Xi's I "讓中國再次偉大 initiative would be national hysteria.  Universities would request government bailouts to cover millions in lost tuition.  Thousands of classes in math and science would be canceled as instructors returned to China.  Ongoing research projects by the hundreds would be suspended when lab workers and supervisors resigned their positions.

Now, what can be done before this Sputnik Moment arrives?            

If we reasonably assume that domestic brainpower exists, the problem becomes how to find and cultivate it, ensure that super-bright youngsters seek scientific careers, and then fund them generously.  Hardly daunting — we did this for decades in the past, and recall the U.S. space program,  Silicon Valley, the internet and countless other "Made in America" technical innovations when we had a smaller population.  The patriarchy cured polio and invented the transistor.  Brainy Americans are not like whales, who mysteriously vanish thanks to shifting ocean currents.

The culture also has to change, merit has to replace diversity über alles, and somebody has to bell the cat about the fashionable nonsense in universities that sap funds from serious intellectual endeavors.  Combatting hate is not the core purpose of intellectual life, and can we justify spending millions on airhead college majors when universities cannot staff basic science courses?   K–12 programs for the gifted should return to their original mission, with admission based on tough objective exams, not waste millions trying to uncover hidden talents in minorities.  The mass media should celebrate brain power qua brain power even if the geniuses are white males.  Yes, it is unfortunate that a deadly pandemic with its focus on Chinese malevolence may be required to trigger this cultural transformation, but a deadly wake-up call is still a wake-up call.

Image: Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of NASA and Pixabay full public domain images.

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