Prizing American Science

Science 2008 / by TJ Kelleher /

Newt Gingrich discusses the potential of the US Congress to shape science research.

©Callista Gingrich, Gingrich Productions

Newt Gingrich was a member of the US House of Representatives from 1979 to 1999 and Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999. Although Gingrich is perhaps best known as a lead author of the Contract with America or for his sometimes rancorous battles with Bill Clinton, his long experience in the political sphere and deep interest in science policy, health care, and environmental issues make his perspective on science and the American experiment an insightful one. Gingrich spoke with Seed senior editor T.J. Kelleher about the threats and possibilities facing US scientists and policy makers.

Seed: Science seems caught up in an electoral system that’s inherently subjective. How does objectivity survive?
NG: First of all, science is permanently evolving. So, you have constant arguments. I think that you rely on institutions like the National Academy of Sciences, but you also rely on the honest debate between outliers, because sometimes the vast majority of eminent scientists are just plain wrong.

You have to draw a distinction between scientists who have political opinions, in which case they are citizens exactly like movie stars, business leaders, trial lawyers, and anybody else, and scientists who are offering a debate based on fact and based upon theoretical construct. I mean, most of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ activities are politics, not science. They’re describing a group of people whose occupation brings them together. One must always ask, what’s the topic we’re talking about? What are the facts around that topic? And what are the scientific analyses that interpret those facts?

Seed: What advantages does a scientific background grant to legislators?
NG: It gives them some prestige in discussing science issues. It gives them some specialized knowledge in their field of study. But remember, these specialties nowadays change so rapidly that if you’ve gone off and become a politician, you may or may not be current, though you at least can ask really good questions. But even if their occupation or training loans them some prestige, it doesn’t extend to every question. Consider the medical doctors who serve in the Congress. We may or may not agree about politics, and they may or may not agree among themselves. It’s one thing to say that I’d like them near me if I had a heart attack, but just because of their training, I’m not sure I would want their views — or agree with their thinking — on how to reform the health care system.

Seed: How can a congressman who doesn’t have any specialized background stay scientifically informed?
NG: Ideally, they should talk to scientists. I, frankly, was opposed to the Office of Technology Assessment because I thought it was bureaucratized and political. But every congressional district has a substantial number of scientists who are either teaching or doing lab work, or are in some way engaged — there are remarkably few districts that don’t have a significant number of scientists in them. Congressmen should go to places like the National Academy of Sciences and the specialized groups — I talked last year to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, for example. You pick up the phone and call the president of MIT or Georgia Tech or Cal Tech or you name it, and you say, “So, who are your five best people in this topic?” It’s networking. Politicians are, by definition, generalists. And it’s a process of learning how to find the right people, ask the right questions, and then draw conclusions based in general wisdom and general experience. Take the Endangered Species Act. E.O. Wilson and a handful of other scientists were decisive in preserving it, and although no congressman had to automatically agree with his particular view, everyone had to take it seriously.

Seed: How can the average scientist best influence policy?
NG: Every scientist ought to be a citizen two or three days a year and see their two senators and see their House member, as citizens, and legitimately represent their beliefs about science and their beliefs about research investment and their beliefs about education reform. And they shouldn’t tell us they’re too busy being scientists to be effective citizens. That’s nonsense. If they did that, they would have a very substantial impact on the political structure.

Seed: Without getting involved permanently.
NG: Right. If scientists showed up at every town hall meeting, and scientists wrote their House member and their senators, they would have an impact.

Seed: You’ve talked about the importance of government backed prizes for scientific research. Do you see that as supplanting the traditional, National Science Foundation (NSF)/National Institutes of Health (NIH) model?
NG: It should be parallel and competitive, but not supplanting. We should look seriously at the peer review model. And we should seriously reconsider who is awarded grants by setting a substantial percent of NSF and NIH and other kind of grant programs aside for scientists under 40. We now have dangerous bias in favor of older scientists, both in terms of who gets attracted to the career, and of the opportunities that might be missed. I operate on the absolute premise that we’re going to get four to seven times as much new science in the next 25 years as we got in the last 25 years. That means we’re going to witness constant paradigmatic shifts, and the younger scientists are important in dealing with that.

Seed: How do we make sure that those younger scientists are engaged and supported?
NG: First, by making the NSF bigger. The greatest single mistake of my Speakership was not tripling the size of the NSF when we were doubling the NIH. Second, I think, we need to be giving direct grants to scientists under 40. A lot of these guys are getting small grants because they’re actually working for senior scientists. So, we kind of have indentured servitude of graduate students and of young scientists. Third, we ought to encourage research in the private sector with a permanent R&D tax credit. And you combine that with a robust program of prizes.

Seed: What about the position of presidential science advisor? What are your thoughts on a position that is, in some sense, the face of science for the US?
NG: Well, I don’t think they’re the public face of science any more than the head of NSF, NIH, or NASA. There are lots of faces of science. Ideally, we would have senior science administrators. Great science advisors have focused their energy on a handful of very large breakthroughs. Vannevar Bush’s ability to informally migrate through the system and educate people into the right strategies was breathtaking. Both Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s science advisors were more mature, strategic advisors than we’ve had in recent years. It’s become kind of a politicized position as opposed to a science position.

Seed: David King, the former UK science advisor, saw what he called “silo walls” around different executive science offices. How do we break down those walls?
NG: I think that it would be useful to have some kind of coordinating council among the sciences in the federal government. We have too many vertical silos and, frankly, vastly too much bureaucracy. The bureaucratization of DOE has been a disgrace; the bureaucratization of NASA has been a disgrace. These become moribund, aging, and sort of permanent paper-shuffling institutions that don’t necessarily move forward the big gains. That’s sort of why I like prizes, because prizes allow anybody who wants to compete to do so without prior approval. And you just get a much richer and more dynamic milieu.

Seed: How do we decide where to make the large, but still finite, investments that the US government can make in science?
NG: We need to rethink how we make public investments. Let me give you an example. We have an Alzheimer’s study group at the Center for Health Transformation, which I helped found. And Alzheimer’s for the baby-boom generation will be a $1.2 trillion cost to the federal government under current projections. If you can postpone Alzheimer’s onset by five years, you eliminate half that. So, that’s a $600 billion savings. What would a reasonable investment be up front, to save $600 billion? And why would you score that competitively against the next six pork-barrel projects?

Education investments are another critical area. I’ve argued, in fact, that the secretary of defense should do an annual report on math and science education, and an annual report on fundamental research, because those are national security issues at least as much as Iraq or Iran; failure of math and science education is a greater threat than any conceivable conventional war. I’ve also proposed that we pay science majors in high school as though they were earning a stipend. If you’re willing to take calculus and you’re willing to take chemistry, and you’re willing to get good grades and you’re willing to be smart, why aren’t we paying you?

Seed: How can politicians transcend partisan roles to address these difficult but really nonpartisan issues facing American science?
NG: You have to start with the willingness to find good things you can agree on. Spend a couple days a week doing good things, then spend a couple days a week fighting.

Originally published November 5, 2008

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