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Newt and Scientists: A Long, Complicated Love Affair
30 January 2012 4:45 pm
It's safe to say that only one leading presidential contender has ever boasted of debating Tyrannosaurus Rex's eating habits with a leading paleontologist, of reading Science and Nature while serving in the House of Representatives, and of discussing brain science with some of the leading lights of that field. Indeed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—who faces a make-or-break vote tomorrow in Florida's Republican presidential primary -- may be the best informed and most outspoken science booster to make a serious run for the White House since Vice President Al Gore talked up climate change and computing research during his ultimately unsuccessful 2000 campaign.
Just because Gingrich loves science, however, doesn't mean that researchers and science policy wonks necessarily love Gingrich.
Indeed, Gingrich has a long and complicated relationship with the science community marked by equal measures of flattered delight and bewildered anxiety.
Delight because he appears to know and care so much. Who else has carried a microchip and a vacuum tube in his pocket for impromptu lectures on the history of technology, taken time out from a hectic campaign schedule to visit labs at leading research universities, and loudly called for doubling federal spending on science?
Anxiety because his political ambitions have often helped fuel policy positions that many scientists consider anathema. Those stances include championing the 1994 Contract With America that produced Republican plans for deep cuts in federal R&D spending and political flip-flops that have questioned the reliability of climate science and appeared to endorse the teaching of creationism in schools.
Just two days ago, Gingrich added stem-cell research to that list of reversals while campaigning in Florida, saying he would ban all embryonic stem-cell research, including studies involving discarded embryos created by in vitro fertilization. In 2006, however, he told Discover Magazine, "I would not seek to ban research on stem cells in fertility clinics."
That dichotomy is part of Gingrich's the-future-is-now political style, says Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from New York who served in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007, and was chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology from 2001 to 2007. "Newt is one of the brightest and most articulate people I've been associated with in my whole life," he says, noting that he backed Gingrich's rise through his party's leadership in the 1990s because he believed (correctly) that the fiery Georgian could help Republicans retake the body after decades of Democrat rule.
But, Boehlert adds, "Newt is the ultimate pragmatist. He'll do and say today what is necessary to say and do today to accomplish what he wants, and tomorrow he'll say and do something entirely different."
Gingrich's shifting positions on climate change - from cautious skeptic in the late 1980s to believer in the late 2000s to skeptic again during the current campaign—are a prime example, Boehlert says. That flip-flop hasn't made Boehlert happy; he says Gingrich and the other Republican candidates "need to acknowledge the reality of climate change." And it has irritated numerous climate scientists—including Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, who learned last month that Gingrich had spiked a chapter on climate change that she had written for one of his upcoming books. "So much 'spare' time wasted," she tweeted after getting the news.
Gingrich's double-edged nature was also on full display in 1995, after his party's victory in congressional elections made him what many regarded as the most powerful politician in Washington. The Contract With America, for example, called for cutting federal spending, and House Republicans that May produced a budget plan that called for sweeping cuts in federal spending on basic and applied science. Soon after that vote, however, Gingrich privately met with a handful of key legislators "to urge them not to sacrifice science to pay for other programs," Science's Andrew Lawler reported at the time. "Gingrich was concerned there was the mistaken impression that science was not a priority, that it was okay to go ahead and cut it," a Gingrich aide told Lawler.
Two months later, Gingrich and his close ally Robert Walker, then head of the House science committee, intervened again to prevent the powerful House Appropriations Committee from making deep cuts in NASA's space science programs. The compromise, however, called for slashing environmental monitoring programs instead. Another recurrent Gingrich theme is the need to "shake up" NASA, including having the agency offer prizes to spur new aerospace technologies. It also applies to sending humans to Mars without resorting to a massively expensive, federally funded program—an idea that has resurfaced during the Florida campaign.
Gingrich has said his efforts during the budget fights of the late 1990s highlight his support for science. But such moves did little to endear Gingrich to top science officials in the Clinton Administration. "He's smart but not very wise," says John "Jack" Gibbons, who served as President Bill Clinton's science advisor from 1993 to 1998. "He always felt that he knew enough science that he didn't need any help. But he has limits on his ability to know what he doesn't know, and he never felt comfortable with the scientific community or the process of science, ... and he is so unpredictable." Gibbons says the Administration's relationship with Gingrich reached a nadir after he compared Gingrich's 1995 decision to shut down Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (a science advice bureau for lawmakers that Gibbons once ran) to a medieval book burning.
Gingrich's relationships with other scientists, however, have been cozier. A huge fan of zoos, Gingrich has coauthored books on conservation and environmental issues with psychobiologist Terry Maples, who ran zoos in Atlanta and Palm Beach, Florida. He's spent time in the field digging up dinosaur bones with paleontologist John "Jack" Horner of Montana State University in Bozeman, and even spent several hours debating T. rex's eating habits with Horner as a fundraiser for a museum. (As Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, Gingrich famously kept a T. rex skull on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in his office.)
Some of his colleagues "are very irritated by a lot of his ideas," Horner says. But "he's an interesting fellow" and "certainly does back science. It's hard to find many people that do." And if Gingrich were elected, Horner says "I'm sure that Newt would not hurt science any. I think he would be a real asset."
Other researchers share that view—and have built bridges to Gingrich in hopes of gaining political advantage. In the mid-2000s, for example, neuroscientists hoped to bolster biomedical research funding by building alliances with industry and Republican lawmakers. By that time, Gingrich—whose mother suffered from bipolar disease—had resigned from Congress and helped found The Center for Health Transformation (CHT). The center promised to be "a high-impact collaboration of private and public sector leaders committed to creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System that saves lives and saves money for all Americans."
In 2006, the 42,000-member Society for Neuroscience (SfN) signed on as a member; in 2007, Gingrich was a featured speaker at its annual conference. He also helped organize at least one meeting between neuroscientists and business leaders before the society ended its CHT membership in 2009.
SfN officials declined ScienceInsider's request to discuss the group's work with CHT. In a written statement, however, Mona Miller, senior director of communications and public affairs, wrote that Gingrich was "among the diverse, bipartisan group of leaders with whom SfN has worked over the past decade on advocacy in support of research. … Mr. Gingrich has also been catalytic in working to engage the business community in support of basic research investment. As part of these efforts, Mr. Gingrich was invited to speak at the 2007 SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, and helped foster dialogue about research investment within the neuroscience business community."
Another facet of Gingrich the science fan includes his frequent shout outs for books written by scientists. He's written glowing reviews of quantum physics tomes for Amazon.com, and urged new members of Congress to read Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes , an influential 1982 book by primate researcher Frans B. M. de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta.
"I am no Gingrich supporter," de Waal wrote ScienceInsider in an e-mail. But he's impressed by Gingrich's facility with science, and somewhat amused that his book left such an impression on the candidate. "Funny story," he writes. "At about the same time that Newt Gingrich read Chimpanzee Politics … [former President] Jimmy Carter read my book Peacemaking among Primates. Both are local politicians here in Atlanta, and I have actually met both. Although flattered, I have always felt they should have switched books. Carter would have benefited from knowing more about Machiavellian power politics, and Gingrich could have learned from the peacemaking skills of bonobos and other primates."
Now, it's up to voters to decide whether Gingrich will get another chance at power or peacemaking in Washington.