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Gingrich: Unprecedented Change is Coming—and the U.S. Isn’t Ready
Worldwide scientific knowledge will increase by at least fourfold in the next quarter century and it is uncertain that American society is ready to cope with the changes that will occur, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told a group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows.
“I believe in the next 25 years we'll have four to seven times as much new scientific knowledge as we've had in the last 25 years,” Gingrich said. His remarks were delivered 18 July to more than 150 people in the ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington , D.C.
“There are more scientists alive now than in all previous human history and every year they get better and better instrumentation and computer capability,” he said. These factors, plus modern communications and the availability of venture capital offering the possibility of great wealth from innovation, will dramatically change society during the next quarter-century, he said.
How will America handle the technical changes on the horizon? Gingrich wasn't optimistic. “Nobody in our society has a clue of how to deal with that scale of new knowledge,” he said.
Gingrich, a professor and scholar in history and author of more than a dozen books, served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999.
“As a member of AAAS for more than 30 years, Dr. Gingrich stressed the need for greater interaction between policymakers and scientists to address the increased complexity of societal challenges in this era of globalization,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. “The S&T Policy Fellowships are built to foster that relationship, with the ultimate benefits going to society.”
The AAAS Fellowships were founded in 1973 as a way to make scientific and engineering expertise more readily available to policy-makers, and to educate scientists about policy development and implementation. Nearly 2,000 scientists and engineers have served as Fellows in congressional offices and a variety of federal departments and agencies, and hundreds of them have gone on to careers in public service, some in Congress and at the highest levels of government policy-making.
Trying to plan today for the changes that science may bring within 25 years would be like “someone in 1880 trying to imagine what life would be like today,” he said. In 1880, there were no electric lights, long-distance telephones, radio, television or internal combustion engines. “It is hard to imagine how one lived in a world like that,” he said.
If scientific knowledge actually increases sevenfold, as some experts predict, he said, then it would be comparable to Sir Isaac Newton attempting to plan in 1660 for the innovations that would occur during the next 346 years.
Education is the key to the United States thriving in this new expanded era of science, and yet the American educational system is performing poorly in math and science, he said.
Gingrich said that a study by a bipartisan congressional commission in 2001 warned that the second greatest threat to America's future, just behind weapons of mass destruction, was the failure of U.S. math and science education.
“It is a greater threat than any conceivable conventional war,” he said. “If we do not fix our educational system, the United States will not be the leading country in the world in the 21 st century.”
He said a few countries already match the U.S. in some scientific fields and whether America can make the changes needed to keep up in the future is uncertain.
“The odds are no better than 50-50 that we will make the scale of changes necessary to be competitive by 2050,” said Gingrich. “That is a very significant problem.”
Gingrich said he favors “fundamentally overhauling the American education system.”
The former congressman said he also wants to create a temporary worker program to attract scholars from other lands. The plan would give people with masters and doctorate degrees “automatic access to the American market in a very easy way” and would help bring to the U.S. “the smartest people on the planet.”
“I am enthusiastically in favor of our absorbing as many smart people as we can attract,” he said.
Gingrich encouraged the AAAS Fellows to involve themselves in the nation's governmental processes.
“The smartest citizens have to involve themselves in self-government or by definition they will turn this government over to people who are dumber,” he said.
Active participation in self-government is important “to sustain freedom for your children and grandchildren,” said Gingrich. “It is hard work, it is painful work, it is frustrating work, but it is the heart of our survival.”
And on that point, he made an admission to the Fellows: One of the reasons he accepted the invitation to speak, he said, was “to try to recruit you.”
27 July 2006