Gingrich and Markoff at CSTB

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined yesterday’s meeting of the National Academies’ Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, ostensibly to talk about health care and IT — though he probably only spent a couple of minutes total on the topic. Instead, the board and those of us in the audience got Gingrich’s take on what’s wrong with America’s innovation ecosystem and his plan for addressing it. The presentation was very interesting — Gingrich is a remarkable extemporaneous speaker, even in front of an audience that I suspect was not full of Gingrich “fans.” I jotted down some brief notes as he outlined his recommendations and I reprint them here, just because I thought it was a nicely structured approach. According to Gingrich, we need to:

1) Dramatically, radically overhaul math and science education by:

  • paying students in grades 7-12 a wage equivalent to what they’d make at McDonald’s if they earn “B’s” or better.
  • eliminating regulation that prevents those with subject expertise from teaching that subject in schools (retired scientists and engineers, for example)

2) Triple the size of NSF

  • The Administration’s budget priorities are wrong. Congress is wrong. Regrets that his biggest mistake as speaker was not tripling NSF when they doubled NIH

3) Establish a national library of science similar to PubMed

  • especially needed for adults looking to further education

4) Need to dramatically deregulate our markets (presumably telecom)

  • need to have the highest capital investment in new technologies of any country in the world

5) We need to have “a vision of a dynamic successful future” in order to recruit the next generation of scientists and engineers

  • President has the right instinct with moon/mars, but the wrong program
  • there’s no coherent vision now of a scientifically exciting future

While he says it’s important to have a positive vision of the future for attracting future scientists and engineers, policymakers need to be motivated by the negatives. The current budget situation is a total mess, he said, but messes can be great opportunities. Increasing federal support for fundamental R&D is a really large change and “really large change is a long-wave process.” CEOs need to say to policymakers “here is what you have to do” and then communicate the downside:

  • We will lose without investment in NSF – “Do you want US to be the new Europe?”
  • The US is in a dominating position, but that position is not permanent. “We are temporarily and briefly the most powerful country in the world.”
  • Unfortunately, making the case is like the challenge of convincing relatively healthy people they should eat healthy and exercise. They don’t see a pressing need, even though the change would help them live longer, healthier lives. The US can “decay elegantly forever.” The challenge is to reverse that.
  • I thought it was a very interesting talk.
    John Markoff, tech reporter for the NY Times (we’ve covered a few of his stories, including this really important one, here in this space) also participated in the meeting, running through his history of the rise of the personal computer, as told in his book What the Dormouse Said. Markoff also talked a bit about his frustration with what’s happening with tech coverage in journalism and at the Times — a move to cover much more of the business side of technology with less emphasis on the exciting stories about the science — but understood the pressures facing the publishers given the absolutely grim financial situations newspapers find themselves in at the moment. We’ve seen this in the advocacy community. The one “case” for the need to support fundamental research that seems to get the most traction both in the press and among policymakers at the moment is the “innovation” case — that is, the linkage between fundamental research performed by the nation’s universities and federal labs and innovation in U.S. industries. I suppose that’s not surprising. But more often it would be nice, I think — especially if one of our goals is inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers — to see stories covering the excitement of the path to discovery, the quest for knowledge….
    Anyway, on the whole, I thought it was a very enjoyable morning at the National Academies.

    Gingrich and Markoff at CSTB