Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Aleksander Popovskiy Headshot

Expanding Our Horizons on Yuri's Night

Posted: Updated:

Tonight is "Yuri's Night," a global celebration of the first time humanity sent one of its own, Russia's Yuri Gagarin, into space. While it's appropriate to stand in awe of the technological achievement made 51 years ago, as each year passes, it seems to grow more amazing that we did it. Perhaps humanity's goals have changed, becoming more inward or terrestrial-focused, but the means to reach for the stars beyond and achieve them -- education in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) -- have similarly declined. This is true not just in the United States, where the Space Shuttle's retirement has sparked concern over how to inspire the next generation of innovators, but also in my country, Russia.

As technologically adept as Russians are known to be, each year it's getting harder to recruit high-quality engineers under the age of 40 in Russia. So too, the United States faces a similar generational talent shortage. According to a study published by the American Association of Retired Persons and the Society for Human Resource Management, there is a 33 percent gap in engineering skills between older (over 50) and younger (under 31) workers in the United States. For both countries to find their way back to STEM excellence, it's worth retracing the steps we took to get there in the first place.

While education in Russia has been a national focus since the time of Peter the Great, the period between 1950 and 1970 was a watershed. In fact, there was more than a 3,000x increase in government spending on education in that period, after which Russia achieved a literacy rate of 99.7 percent. The Soviet Union then could boast the third-largest number of scientists and engineers per capita in the world early 21st century.

Of course, as anyone who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon can attest, the United States rose to the STEM challenge. Months after Sputnik was launched, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, pouring $9 billion into the educational system over four years. President Eisenhower stated the legislation would, "strengthen our American system of education so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by considerations of basic national security." By 1960, educational funding had increased six-fold from seven years prior.

Even more than the funding, the attention paid to STEM education as a national priority changed both countries' cultures. As a child growing up in the industrial city of Kirov, the space race loomed large. Though I never wanted to become a cosmonaut, the space race created an environment where technical progress was revered. In addition to regular classes, children with excellent academic performance in math and physics spent hundreds of hours preparing for nationwide competitions called "Olympics." This was a unique institution that enabled the country to identify the most talented students throughout the USSR.

Similarly in the United States, the 1960s and 1970s was a time when, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently noted, "It was just expected that innovations would just transform the world. People dreamed about tomorrow and who brings tomorrow into the present if not the technologists, the scientists and the engineers?" Whole populations shifted their stance towards technology, with the effects still measurable today. As COO of the largest Russian telecommunications company Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), I supervise call centers throughout the region. And Russian's aptitude for technology means far fewer tech support calls than other countries face and shorter resolve for a customer's question -- just 143 seconds on average. In other parts of Europe, that figure climbs to about 450 seconds. It also means that it takes less time than in some Western countries to introduce state-of-the-art technologies and devices to the market. Only in other 'geek' societies, like Korea or Japan, do we see such affinity in the numbers.

Technology-loving populations give birth to technology leaders. In the United States, innovators like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Paul Allen of Microsoft trace their passions to the space race. In Russia, the founders of the most successful high-tech companies majored in applied mathematics or physics in Soviet universities. So did a generation of engineers that helped to build Russia's wireless infrastructure, install tens of thousands of base stations and lay out hundreds of thousands of fiber-optic networks and enabled MTS to grow its mobile subscribers base from one million to over one hundred million in a decade. After all, if you can calculate a rocket's trajectory into space, you can calculate almost anything here on Earth.

Ironically, although so many were inspired by space, the fruits of the R&D work were found on the ground. From dialysis machines to oil wells, water purification systems to fire-fighting equipment, space technology has become deeply embedded in our economies. Satellites alone predict our weather, steer agricultural harvesters and help us find our way whether in big cities or in an open sea. Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) complements and provides the sole alternative in terms of global coverage and precision to U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). Both satellite systems were launched in the early '80s in the midst of the space and arms race. Rather than compete for the skies, like America and Russia once did, we can be grateful that these systems complement each other as most of the smartphones now come equipped with a chipset supporting both systems to get us where we need to go on the ground.

Unfortunately, these advances have been stagnant or even in decline in recent years. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States now ranks 24th among its 31 fellow member countries in mid-career professionals with degrees in science, math, or related fields. The situation is similar in Russia. GE recently reported that "while [Russia] had the highest number of R&D workers and 451,000 researchers in 2008, this number has been decreasing at a rate of 1 percent annually since 1998."

While it's unrealistic to recapture the full zeal of the space race, there are three resources we can draw on to recommit to STEM education. The first is our connectivity. This is a much more connected world than what we enjoyed back in 1960. The ability to share ideas, pool expertise and collaborate across borders dramatically lowers the costs -- and increases the speed -- of innovation. Just imagine how much faster we would have arrived on the moon if engineers had access to the Internet or could collaborate in real time around the globe? The second resource is in the area of motivation. While the past century was driven by national rivalry, in this one, it's economic survival that is at stake. The more people are aware of the intellectual arms race ahead, the more they will be motivated -- while motivating their children -- to enter it well-prepared. Finally, there is the rich heritage of the space race to draw upon. Though we may dismiss the stars and focus instead on more down-to-Earth issues, in cities throughout Russia and the world right now, a young boy or girl is looking upward, thinking of Yuri and all those who came after him, and asking, "What else is possible?"