Discover Interview: Newt Gingrich

The former Speaker—now a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination—talked to DISCOVER in 2006 about evolution, stem cells, Washington's two cultures, and why kids should be paid to take science and math.

By Francis Wilkinson|Friday, December 09, 2011

This interview with Newt Gingrich originally ran in the October 2006 issue of DISCOVER. We're re-publishing it now because of its renewed relevance: Gingrich is pegged by many observers as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, after his recent and dramatic surge in national polls. 

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Newt Gingrich
Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Newt Gingrich hasn't been Speaker of the House for a while. He was chased out of office in November 1998, trailed by a vague but persistent ethical cloud. Depending upon your political views, you most likely recall Gingrich in one of two ways: either as the brilliant revolutionary who overturned a complacent, morally bankrupt Democratic order in the House of Representatives or as the power-hungry backbencher who unleashed the attack dogs of partisanship on the Capitol. Of course, Gingrich is a large enough personality to warrant a bit of both descriptions and then some.

The former Speaker is still entrenched in Washington, D.C., and what he does and says still matters. He is active on the lecture circuit, writes regularly, and has instant access to a wide array of top-tier policymakers. Most are Republican, but lately Gingrich has found common cause on an issue or two with, to use one notable example, Democratic senator Hillary Clinton. It's a pairing that serves them both. Gingrich, too, is rumored to be considering a run for president in 2008. He is well aware of the benefits of a bipartisan stroll down the middle of the road.

Love him or hate him, Gingrich is never dull. In Congress, he was passionate about science and technology in a way that politicians rarely are. And in books like Winning the Future (Regnery Publishing, 2005), he has used his great talent for communication to convey not only passion but also new and interesting directions in policy. His influence was once enormous. It may be yet again.

Where did you get your passion for science?
It started as a passion for animals and grew into an interest in paleontology and how life evolved. I began to realize how much science and technology change everything around us. The pure beauty of the natural world and the intellectual elegance of understanding how things work, combined with the power of science and technology to dramatically expand our opportunities, has kept me enthralled.

Who are your guiding lights in science?
The first was Raymond Ditmars, a former curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo. I read all his books. I wrote a letter to him when I was about 13; I got a loving note back from the zoo pointing out that Ditmars had died in 1942, the year before I was born.

If you'd gone into science instead of politics, where do you think you would have ended up?
I would have been a naturalist. Edward O. Wilson is probably the closest to my model. I really love paleontology and animals and plants and the complexity of ecosystems.

Do you view evolution as "just a theory" or as the best explanation for how we came to be?
Evolution certainly seems to express the closest understanding we can now have. But it's changing too. The current tree of life is not anything like a 19th-century Darwinian tree. We're learning a lot about how systems evolve and don't evolve. Cockroaches became successful several hundred million years ago and just stopped evolving.

Where do you come down on teaching intelligent design in schools? Do you think the ruling in the Dover, Pennsylvania, case was appropriate?
I believe evolution should be taught as science, and intelligent design should be taught as philosophy. Francis Collins's new book, The Language of God, is a fine statement that combines a belief in God with a belief in evolution. I do not know enough about the Dover case to critique the judge's decision, but I am generally cautious about unelected judges establishing community standards—that is the duty of elected officials.

You have called for a dramatic overhaul of math and science education in the United States. What do you propose?
I've advocated, for example, paying kids in 7th through 12th grade the equivalent of what they would make working at McDonald's if they take math and science and get a B or better. Overnight you would change the culture of poor neighborhoods in America. We ought to be honest and say math and science are harder. They're extraordinarily valuable to the country as national security and economic matters. Cultures get what they pay for. We currently pay for rock stars, movie stars, and football and basketball players. Shouldn't being a child prodigy in math be at least as important as being a child prodigy in basketball? Also, I'd allow anyone with substantive knowledge to participate. If you're a retired Ph.D. in physics and you'd like to come in one hour a day to teach physics, I'd let you. No union dues. No credentialing. And I'd argue that if you let everyone in the country who knows physics teach physics, with no credentialing, you'd have a better outcome. Finally, there's no reason to believe that an 1820 school model has any relevance to the 21st century. It's terrific only if you think kids today are going to work in a textile mill. School should mimic reality, not defy it. Almost everyone you know who wants to learn either learns part-time or by immersing themselves for three to five days. They don't go and sit for one hour a day ad nauseam.

You've been quoted as saying, "Those who talk don't know science, and those who know science don't talk."
That's a paraphrase of C. P. Snow's Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, titled "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," on given in 1959. [DISCOVER co-sponsored a conference on the lecture at its 50th anniversary.] He was making the case that we've had a divergence, where the culture of literature and the culture of science have separated. As a result, if you're a literati you don't know science, and if you're a scientist you can't communicate.

Is that gulf evident on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch?
Yeah, basically. The biggest thing that's evident both in the White House and on Capitol Hill is the lack of a time horizon. The generation that fought the Second World War had fought in the First World War. They had 20 years to think about the Second World War. When they came out of the Second World War, they thought about the cold war. So their sense was, you know, over a 15- or 20-year period we do A, B, C, and D and invest methodically. The founding of the National Science Foundation—all of the things they did up to the early '60s were done with a practical, real-world knowledge of long-term capital development. That's totally missing today. Just as Wall Street has degenerated into an overfocus on quarterly reports, Capitol Hill has an overfocus on this year's budget skirmishes.

In your estimation, what percentage of Washington policymakers, meaning Capitol Hill plus the executive branch, have that longer-term perspective?
Less than one. We are in an enormous mismatch between our governing elite and reality on a bipartisan basis. I'm certain not more than 1 percent of this city has a clue.

You're very active on health-care policy. How are we doing in the fight against cancer?
Cancer can be such a horrifying way to die that there is a very high emotional, moral value to ending cancer as a cause of death. When Andy von Eschenbach, who was head of the National Cancer Institute, stated that he felt we could eliminate cancer as a cause of death by 2015, I was stunned by how Washington totally failed to react. It's a perfect indicator of the failure of the system to do any creative thinking when a man who's a national-class scientist posts that and then we say, "Yeah, what's your next topic?" Or, "How do you feel about the primary in Iowa?" They go right back to the banal because it makes them feel secure.

You've also pressed the health-care industry to go digital.
The Veterans Administration has an electronic health record, and none of its patients lost their records after Katrina. By contrast, an estimated 1,100,000 people with paper records lost all their data. Paper kills. Every American should have a personal electronic health record. You want doctors to take less than 17 years to pick up the latest best practice—which is how long it takes now, according to the Institute of Medicine. You have to go to a whole new model of continuous medical learning, online, pulled forward on demand. And you have to make it available to patients because patients will be the best police of the doctors. The doctors will have to learn to keep up with the patients' questions.

What's the right approach on embryonic stem cell research?
For me it is to say unequivocally that you should not use any stem cells from abortion. On the other hand, there's a lot of research now being done on the ability to take, I think, one out of eight cells from the very earliest stages of reproduction without harming the embryo. If that turns out to be viable, you might end up with people having their own cell line almost as a matter of course 20 years from now.

What about stem cells derived from embryos at fertility clinics?
I think the federal government needs to set an example by making sure that when it is the funding source for such research, it is subject to serious ethical guidelines. I am against human cloning research, and I am against research on aborted fetuses. Having said that, I would not seek to ban research on stem cells in fertility clinics.

You've predicted a fourfold to sevenfold increase in scientific discovery in the next 25 years. What does that mean?
I began thinking of the fact that you have more scientists alive now than in all of previous human history. You have better instrumentation and computation. The scientists are connected by e-mail and cell phone. And they're connected by licensing to venture capital and royalties—and to China and India as reserve centers of production. Put all that together and it leads to dramatically more science than we've ever seen before. And if you get a breakthrough in quantum computing, then you're in a totally different world. My instinct as a historian is that four is probably right. I used that figure when I spoke to the National Academy of Sciences working group on computation and information, and afterwards the head of the group said to me, "That's too small a number." He said it's got to be at least seven. What it means is, if you have a planning committee looking out to 2031, and you're going to have four times as much change, that puts you in the position of someone in 1880 trying to imagine 2006. If you are going to have seven times as much change, that puts you in 1660. And nobody understands that.

Some groups invite you to come talk to them, but it seems that you actively seek out researchers as well.
I follow ideas. When I stepped down as Speaker, I knew I'd been out of sync with science because I'd just been so immersed in politics. I called several people. The president of Georgia Tech was one; I said I just want to come study. I went out to NASA Ames, I went up to MIT. For the first two years, I would schedule time regularly.

Where should we stand on global warming?
I don't think people know, because science has been so involved in politics on this issue that it's very hard to know whom to believe.

Many scientists would say the opposite, that politics has been too involved in science.
I'm just saying it seems to me the data's not nearly as clear as the scientists imply. Let's start with the Gore movie [An Inconvenient Truth]. I haven't seen it, but everything I've read suggests he grossly exaggerates the probable dangers. I believe as a matter of prudence it is reasonable to try to lower the carbon load in the atmosphere.

Prudent because we don't understand the science fully, so we should err on the side of caution?
Unlike right-wingers who would say, "Since we don't know 100 percent for sure, we can keep carbon loading," I'd say there is enough evidence that it's reasonable to try to move toward renewables, to try to move toward conservation, to try to move toward a hydrogen economy. All those are reasonable steps. But none leads me to panic. We are dramatically cooler than we have been for large parts of Earth's history. We could do everything mandated by Kyoto [the Kyoto accord on climate change] times 10, and if the sun changes its behavior, it'll just swamp us. There's a certain human egocentrism that undervalues how big the system is.

Isn't a hydrogen economy still pretty far off?
I've been actively involved with the "25 by 25" group that says we ought to be using 25 percent renewables by 2025.

How do you see that happening?
I am a [Theodore] Rooseveltian Republican. I believe in incentives, not punishment. I'd change the market and let the technologies sort themselves out. But I will also say I'd look at soy diesel, at E85 ethanol, solar power, wind power, and better systems of conservation. I could also argue that you want to move toward fuel-cell hydrogen models as rapidly as you can figure them out. And if you can build a very stable next-generation nuclear power plant, then we have to look at a substantial amount of nuclear as part of this process.

You've said that humans have a destiny to spread across the solar system and the cosmos. How do we accomplish that?
Twenty-five years ago I said we have to start talking about how the moon will be governed. I suggested it ought to be governed by free people in a free system obeying the rule of law. People thought it was kind of wacky, but we were trying to make a point. You have NASA, this huge, graying bureaucracy that sits around wasting money and enforcing timidity. Just look at the length of time between shuttle launches: If the Wright brothers had done that, we wouldn't be flying today. You have to have a risk-oriented, high-tempo, entrepreneurial model; you ought to offer enormous rewards for lowering the cost of getting into space. You want everybody and their brother to show up and compete. NASA's been a success. I voted for it, I supported it, but I have to say it has been a bureaucratic nightmare.

If you were president, what would you do to advance the interests of science?
The first thing you do is you talk about it every day. You talk about why investing over here is going to help cure cancer. You talk about investing in new forms of learning to allow young Americans to break out. You ought to talk about what we could get done in space in the next 20 years if we had an entrepreneurial spirit. What makes science fun is this adventure of discovery, which is both aesthetically pleasing and is productive in a practical way. We need to get back to being that kind of system. And that requires real leadership at the top because the underlying biases of this culture are commercial rather than scientific. It should be as possible, or more possible, to succeed in America as a scientist or engineer as it is to succeed as a rock star, athlete, or movie star. Unless you set that goal—and that's got to be a culturally defined goal, the rewards system has to be built in—we will not sustain our leadership role in the world.

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