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Q/A: Newt’s Eye Is on the New Biology

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Newt Gingrich is wending his way back into the media limelight on the tails of the double-helix. As Speaker of the House from 1995-1999, Gingrich was known as a proponent of technology funding. Now, as CEO of a management-consulting firm in Atlanta, the one-time environmental sciences professor is making genomics one of his pet topics.

In a 25-page essay at his website (www.newt.org), Gingrich forecasts a cultural revolution built on “a synergistic interaction between the nano world, biology, and information.” To bone up, Gingrich has done time recently at MIT, Stanford, and the National Science Foundation. He called up Genome Technology from the road last month.

GT: It sounds like you are taking on the role of liaison between the scientific community and the government and general public.

GINGRICH: Liaison may be too strong a term, but how about translator? I learn from scientists what they think the next 25 years holds and then explain that in terms of what we ought to be thinking about in our own lives and businesses and in terms of what the government should be focusing public policy on.

For example, I submitted an article to Science talking about an opportunities-based science budget and making the argument that the opportunities are so enormous right now that we ought to go out to the scientific community and ask people, If you had the resources, what could we learn in the next 10 or 15 years?

GT: What would be the best thing the Federal government could do to support development of genomics and related technologies?

GINGRICH: If you’re talking about genomics specifically, there are a couple things we need to do. We need to overhaul the education system to ensure we are producing enough Americans who can do the math and science to fill the jobs of the next 20 years. Second, eliminate the capital gains tax to increase the amount of capital available to help translate genomics into practical commercial products.

I had lunch about a year ago with Dr. Crick and he said understanding fully the implications of DNA would take 100 years. It’s in our interest to pay for basic research, to ensure we have a workforce capable of doing the work, and to encourage the business climate in which capitalists are helping young scientists become entrepreneurs, so that we get the biological equivalent, for example, of Microsoft or Intel. I think that’s going to be one of the great challenges of the next 10 to 15 years.

[We need] to create an opportunities-based science budget so that we have enough research going on in terms of basic research and creating the instrumentation we need for the next generation. Genomics as it gets applied is going to require enormous amounts of computing power.

In 1935, the idea that you would get your teeth x-rayed routinely or the idea that we’d use an x-ray machine to scan your brief case as you carry it through the airport would have struck people as crazy because it was a very rare, complicated, expensive technology. Today we take it for granted. Applying genomics to each individual patient will be as common 25 years from now as dental x-rays or scanning at an airport is today.

GT: Do you think Congress should continue funding government agencies to carry out genomics work such as sequencing that is being done simultaneously in the private sector?

GINGRICH: We should have a race. We should have government-funded research, and we should have as many private sector resources. If you lower the capital gains tax, and I would be willing to have some litigation reform, human genomics is a zone where we have the potential to save millions of lives and transform the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. And I think we should go forward on both fronts simultaneously as fast as we can.

 

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