Big fan. Newt Gingrich has been talking up science on the campaign trail, but he's had a rocky relationship with the scientific community.
Credit: Newt 2012
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
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
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
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.