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.