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Scientists Must Speak Out

We Depend On It

By Newt Gingrich

The fate of our country may well depend on whether or not scientists recognize that they have real responsibilities as citizens.

The fact is no one else is as qualified to make the case for increased funding in science research and reform of science education. Without a continued commitment to funding scientific research and development and a successful reform of science education it is very unlikely that the United States will maintain the momentum it has created over the last 60 years.

Our economic future depends directly on our ability to take new scientific research and translate it into entrepreneurial development. Without the last 60 years we would all have lesser incomes, lower standards of living, and fewer choices. Be it aircraft, manufacturing, marketing, entertainment - you name it - the American technological and scientific advantage has been key to our success as world leaders.

In the development of the high-tech world the role of government (in both defense research and nondefense research) has been vital. The modern entrepreneur of Silicon Valley is creating an entirely new economy based on the scientific advances of three generations of government funded research and development. The Internet itself is an example of government-funded research providing a platform upon which entrepreneurial success has been built.

In health and health care it would be particularly tragic to slow our investment in research at the very moment we are entering a wonderful new world of knowledge. We will learn more about the human body in next 20 years than in all of human history. Biology will be to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th.

If we invest wisely, we will extend life, minimize suffering, and create a healthier and less medically expensive America. But if we stand by and allow research funding to slow, literally more people will die, with greater pain, at higher cost. That is what's at stake.

Finally, regarding national security, scientific achievement is ultimately a matter of life and death. Without radar and sonar we could not have won the World War II (it took the first to win the Battle of Britain; the second to win the battle of the North Atlantic).

If our opponents had achieved nuclear weapons before us, we would have been defeated. In real terms, these breakthroughs saved an immeasurable number of lives. But America is only one wave of scientific breakthroughs away from being vulnerable. If at any point our scientific research and education fail to be the best, our national security will weaken and our ability to lead will disappear.

So, if all this is so important, why must scientists come forth as citizens and explain it? Because no one else has their understanding or credibility. C.P. Snow was correct in 1959 when he described two emerging cultures - the scientific and the nonscientific. Too often those who know enough about science cannot explain it in popular language. Conversely, those who are effective at communicating in popular language don't know science. In the scientific community the situation is worsened because scientists like Carl Sagan, who do popularize and reach out, become less than fully respected members of their guild.

Furthermore, most scientists by definition would rather be in their laboratories studying, at conferences learning, or in a classroom teaching than appearing in public settings and appealing for public support. Unfortunately, part of their mindset seems to be a determination that their work is so obviously important that they should not have to explain it.

Instead we need scientists to attend town hall meetings, address members of Congress, and appear on talk radio to explain why research matters. They must go to their local civic club and demand that science education be trusted to those who know science, and demand that the excitement of discovery (the heart of the scientific experience) replace bureaucratic memorization models of science education.

I have fought hard for doubling the science research budget across the board. I have argued strongly for a complete overhaul of science education in America. But frankly one former speaker of the House is not enough. America needs a science lobby fueled by scientists.

In our rapidly moving culture where people can shut out information, we need to hear from the people who are doing the research, making the breakthroughs, and inventing the future.

All I am asking is that every scientist spend an hour or two each month being an active citizen. Do your duty and educate your fellow countrymen about the exciting world that awaits us. Help us understand what is at stake and we will help you find the resources to achieve these great breakthroughs. Every day scientists work in labs and wind tunnels and at computers to make our country a better place. Surely a little citizenship is a small enough price to pay to do the same thing in the public arena. After all, our health, prosperity, and survival are at stake.

Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the US House of Representatives. This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 12/28/1999. © 1999 Globe Newspaper Company. Reprinted with permission.


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