THE WHITE HOUSE|
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release December 21, 2000
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
WITH SCIENCE MAGAZINE
The Oval Office
December 6, 2000
4:20 P.M. EST
Q Our thinking is, you're finishing your second term at the
millennium -- we're in a new millennium. So you have a lot to look back
on that would be interesting. We know your a visionary, so we're
interested in what you think about the future. I thought that we would
start with a couple of philosophical things before getting into the
practical things, because I think it would be interesting for our folks
to hear you address the following issue.
Some of us would make the case that science is becoming such a
core part of our individual human lives that something is actually
transformed from the way it was some decades ago -- that is to say, you
almost can't turn around without needing to have information about
science. I don't know if that's something that you feel, but I was
hoping that you would address the notion about whether you feel that the
impact that science can have now on society, individuals or government,
is substantially greater in your mind than it was when you were younger;
and if that, in effect, has some sort of question --
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, let me say I think, at a minimum,
we are much more aware of the impact of science on our daily lives than
we were when I was young. I'll just give you just one example. You
just take the space program, for example, where we -- if you go back and
look at the rhetoric of President Kennedy and the space program, we had
to get out there and we worried about -- we didn't want the Russians to
beat us into space, and could they do something negative back here.
And then you look at the rhetoric around what we're saying
about the space station -- we've got 16 nations working together and we
want it because it will give us some sense, looking back at Earth, about
what's happening to the environment on Earth, how to handle climate
change, what else should we do about global warming. It will help us in
our studies in a gravity-free environment of all kinds of biological
issues, how proteins form, what happens to tissues, all these kinds of
things. It will help us in our efforts to resolve remaining questions
in the material science area, which have been so pivotal to our growth
of productivity and economic strength.
So if you think about the range of subjects that are part of
kind of the basic language of space research, as compared to where it
was 35, 40 years ago, it's just one example of that. And of course,
most people didn't know there was any such thing as a human genome; most
people still don't know what nanotechnology is. But if you combine the
sequencing of the human gene and the capacity to identify genetic
variations that lead to various kinds of cancers with the potential of
nanotechnology, you get to the point where, in the imagination, you're
identifying cancers when, assuming you have the screening technologies
right, there are only a few cells coagulated together in this mutinous
way, so that you raise the prospect of literally having 100 percent cure
and prevention rate for every kind of cancer, which is something that
would have been just unimaginable before.
Those are just two examples. And I could give you lots of
others. And I think this whole -- the inevitable increasing
preoccupation of the world with climate change -- yesterday I set aside
70 percent of the reefs that the United States has for protection in the
Northern Hawaiian Islands -- I think that will lead inevitably, when
people start thinking about the prospect that the sugar cane fields in
Louisiana, or the Florida Everglades could flood, or agriculture could
move north, people will get a lot more of the science.
And the other thing I would say is I think that the
globalization of society has made us all more vulnerable to each other's
epidemics and viruses.
Q More bioterrorism?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. And that's the final point I was going
to make -- that I think that you've got -- that science has become
essential, indispensable, to dealing with national security.
Bioterrorism, chemical warfare, cyberterrorism.
So for each of those reasons, I think the whole -- the
language of science and the necessity of understanding at least the
basic concepts will make science a much more pervasive part of the
average citizen's life in the next 20 to 30 years than it ever has been.
Q So following on that -- I thought you might feel that way
-- one of the things that one observes is that most international
leaders are trained as lawyers or they come up in the governments. We
tend to have science not in the key place in the ministries, often. And
so I thought maybe you could give our folks a sense of you, yourself --
I think perhaps, or at least some people thought that in the first term
you weren't that familiar with scientific issues, maybe uncomfortable
with them, not sure that you understood them as well. But certainly
since I've seen you, for example, at the millennium dinner that your
wife did on infomatics meets genomics, you were so obviously
enthusiastically involved in the questioning and aware of the stuff.
And you'd also given a very good talk at the AAAS on the genetic rights
of federal employees and so forth.
So I'd like to hear both on a personal level -- has there been
a rather marked change in yourself, in your own relationship to what you
feel you need to know about science. And then in a general sense, what
do you think that -- do you think that governments have to be structured
in a different way to deal with this world that you've just described?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me answer the first question first.
First, I've always been interested in science issues, but the nature of
my life was such that I didn't have a lot of time to be consumed with
them, except the one or two areas where my universities were doing
important research in Arkansas when I was governor. And one of the
reasons that I asked Al Gore to be my Vice President is that he's
devoted so much more of his life to studying scientific issues and
understanding them. And one of the reasons I thought and still think he
would be a good President is that he does understand those things and he
cares about them.
But what happened is, after I got here I began to try to
imagine, just go through the categories you talked about -- what are our
responsibilities in basic research; how can I make a stronger case; are
we going to save the space program or not; if so, what are the arguments
for it and what are the real implications of what we'll be doing there?
What are the national security issues of the 21st century and how much
will science play a role in that? And I think we were all shocked at
that sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, just for example.
And then, of course, I had to deal with these global -- the
sweep of the age problems -- the fact that one-quarter of all the people
who die in the world today die from AIDS, TB and malaria. What are the
implications of the breakdown of public health systems all over the
world? All of these things -- so the more I learned, the more I saw
these things related one to the other, and the more I began to study and
read and try to learn so I could get myself comfortable with what I
thought my responsibilities were at this moment in time.
Q And do you think from that experience that you're
confident that other countries have structures that are going to allow
them to be able to react to these kinds of issues?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know that. But even in this country,
what I did here was to establish this National Science and Technology
Council, to get the Cabinet involved, to let my Science Advisor --
first, Jack Gibbons, then Dr. Neal Lane -- kind of drive it for me.
Q I think you only went to one PCAST meeting, though.
THE PRESIDENT: I think, over eight years, I think I met with
them three times. I think I did.
Q Does that say anything about your --
THE PRESIDENT: But I thought about what they did a lot, and
especially when -- some of the members I knew quite well, and I also had
talks with them. And then some of the specific scientific issues,
particularly those relating to the national security -- and one thing we
didn't mention which was the safety of nuclear weapons in the former
Soviet Union. I spent quite a bit of time on it. And of course, I
spent an enormous amount of time on the climate change issue.
But what I would like to see -- I would hope the next
President would think of ways to even further elevate and
institutionalize scientific concerns. Because I don't think you can
sort of separate out science, except to say we've got to have a strong
basic research budget. And I don't see that this is troubling for
science. The stock values of .com companies or biotech companies go up
and down. That's totally predictable and absolutely inevitable. But
what it should remind us of is that venture capital cannot be expected,
or even the research budgets of big, established corporations cannot be
expected to carry the whole research and development load for America.
So, should we have a permanent R&D tax credit? Of course, we
should. Will it ever be a substitute for basic research? Never.
Never, at least, in the time frame I can imagine.
Q So, going down that road, I think we would like to ask
you what you feel are your big accomplishments. I assume that one of
the areas that you feel proud of is the amount of funding in basic
research, but maybe you could give a little more flesh to that idea, of
what it is that you think it was important to have done, and also after
that, what frustrations you might have had about it.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, first, I think we did do a
great deal of good with basic research. There was enormous support in
the Congress, and among the Republicans as well as the Democrats, for
more funding for the National Institutes of Health and all related
health research. And I think it was most -- there were some politics in
that, because it's easier to sell that to voters back home because we
all want to live forever.
But I think a lot of it was genuine. I think men like John
Porter, a retiring Republican congressman from Illinois, I think he --
his commitment was deep and genuine. So I think there was that. But
we've kept fighting for overall increases. We got the biggest increase
for the National Science Foundation in history this year. So I think we
got research back on the national agenda, and big. And you know -- and
we had some unlikely allies. Newt Gingrich, even after he left the
Congress, continued to speak out for it. So I think that was quite
And then, specifically, I think that research and the funding
for the climate change-related areas and the development of alternative
energy sources and energy conservation technologies is profoundly
important. In the end, that has got to be the answer. We have to be
able to create wealth with smaller and smaller amounts of greenhouse gas
emissions. We have to. And you're either going to have alternative
energy or greater conservation.
If India and China have to grow wealthy the same way we did,
since they will not give up the right to become wealthy, we're not going
to whip this climate change problem. So I think that's important.
The other new area that I think -- I'm glad we continue to
support the sequencing of the genome and all of the genome research.
And we identified a couple of the genetic variants that lead to breast
cancer and other conditions that I think are important. And I think the
work we've done in nanotechnology in 10, 20 years from now will look
very big, indeed. I just think that the potential of this is just
breathtaking, and it will change even the way we think about things like
calculation or what we're supposed to know how to do. It will -- it's
going to really, I think, have a huge and still under-appreciated impact
on our understanding of human processes and our capacity to do things.
Q I had heard you talk a little bit off-line with somebody
at a meeting about how you had come to feel that it was one thing to
support the disease-related research and the NIH and so forth, but it
was crucial to support -- what I guess you call the infrastructure, if I
remember correctly -- I'm not sure -- the computing, the physics that is
now being used in bio-infomatics and so on. I'd rather you would tell
THE PRESIDENT: You remember, we had that millennium meeting
Q That's what I was thinking --
THE PRESIDENT: -- where we had Eric Ladner here, sort of
talking about genomics research, and you had Vince Cerf, who sent the
first e-mail to his then profoundly deaf wife, 18 years ago, and how
they both agreed that the sequencing of the genome would have been
impossible without advances in information technology. And we now know,
to make the point in even a more personal way, Vince Cerf's wife can now
hear because she has a deeply embedded hearing device that would have
been completely inconceivable without information technology, without
the ability to have a computer chip with greater power on a smaller
So the thing that I kept arguing with the Congress on is that,
look, it's fine -- you can't give health research too much money to suit
me; it's perfectly all right, but you've got to do this other, too. And
this year, I think we've reached a happy accord.
Q So, related to that, some people give you credit for
pushing the NSF agenda, some people wonder why it is, however, that DOD
research has been cut by -- the figure I've seen is 40 percent from the
-- which used to support a lot of infrastructure -- math and Internet
issues and so forth.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I think a lot of the research is
going to have dual benefits running back the other way. For many years,
it was all this defense research which had a lot of non-defense
implications. I think a lot of the civilian research is going to have a
lot of defense implications now, because if you think about the kinds of
restructuring that the Defense Department is going to have to do, an
enormous amount of it will have to do with information technology and
weapon systems and troop deployments and intelligence-gathering, and I
also think that a lot of what they will have to do in the fields of
chemical and biological warfare will be driven in no small measure by
Now, I think the Defense Department, frankly, they had to make
some very tough calls. In this last election, the Vice President said
that he would put some more money back into the defense budget and we
began to turn the defense budget around a couple of years ago because we
thought we basically reached the limits of the post-Cold War peace
So I think that's something that the next administration will
have to look at, because we had limited dollars and we tried to put it
into quality of life, into training, into the basic things that would
make the force available to meet the challenges of the moment. And
maybe, you know, maybe it does need some more money.
Q I'm going to jump a little bit to international issues,
because again, I was thinking about you -- direction to some degree with
things that you've done, and I noticed an interesting event that you
would never have known about at Davos when you were there last year. I
happened to be running some panels there. And before you ever got on
stage, there was sort of a revolt in the audience of the Europeans and
the Asians who didn't want to leave, because they had gotten seats three
hours early because they were so excited to see you. And when folks
wanted to sweep the room, they were afraid they were going to lose their
seats, you know. And the thing about that was, they refused to move,
and eventually your guys said okay and relented, and they stayed. But
what I actually noticed about that was that for hours thereafter, people
going, yes, finally America had to listen to us.
And I think that, increasingly, I've heard this sort of
discussion as a sort of subtext that we're such -- we are the only
superpower left. And if you talk to Europeans and Asians, some of them
worry about this sort of power that we have and whether we are using it
wisely all the time. They feel we moralize to them -- I think this is
not going to be news to you.
So what I thought would be interesting for you to talk about a
little bit in the science context is, we've actually dropped some
collaborations with Europeans and Asians on a number of their projects.
It was hard for the Japanese to get us in their human frontiers program.
I don't know if you recall that particular thing.
We haven't supported some of the big European initiatives. So
in relation to this, what would you say maybe either about your own
experience or feelings or what you would advise your successor about how
science might be used internationally for an effort to try to deal with
the kinds of feelings that our European allies and Asian allies might --
THE PRESIDENT: I think I would advise my successor to do as
much to fund as much international collaboration as possible. If I
could just take two examples where it has worked very well, the work
that we did through the NIH with the Human Genome Project involved
several other countries; and when we announced the sequencing, we not
only had Craig Venter here from TIGR from the private effort, we did it
jointly with Tony Blair, and with the ambassadors of the other countries
that were involved in the project with us. I don't think there is any
question that even though there are all kinds of unresolved issues
there, that the fact that we're doing this together has been a plus.
To give you another example which I think is profoundly
important and somewhat controversial, the 16-nation collaboration with
the international space station I think has been very, very important.
I've spent a lot of time, as you know, on this space station, and to see
what the Canadians have done, to see what the Japanese contribution is.
And the Russians got criticized for not being able to come up
with the money, but the price of oil collapsed and they were killed by
this horrible financial crisis. It gripped Asia and also affected them.
I think they're getting back on their feet and I think they'll pay their
way, but the contributions that they made based on the Mir and based on
the fact that they had certain capacities we didn't have, and what we
learned by working together with them and the nine trips to the Mir we
took together with them, and the fact that the corollary benefit of
keeping -- I don't know -- hundreds and hundreds of their scientists and
engineers working on a positive international project, instead of being
picked off by rogue states, to help them develop weapons and missile
technology and things of that kind I think were enormous. So I think
the more that we can make this an instrument of constructive
interdependence, the better off we're going to do.
Also, there are a lot of smart folks out there. And I think
we have to recognize that -- when I took office, there weren't all that
many people that resented us because they thought our economy was a
basket case, and they were worried about us being too weak. Then, when
we had a great deal of success, even though we bent over backwards not
to lord it over anybody, and we did have -- we had some inevitable
conflicts -- our desire to end the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and
Kosovo, things of that kind -- that we were criticized when we did it,
and then when we didn't go in quickly enough in Rwanda, we were
Part of this is inevitable. But I think we do have to try to
wear our power lightly, and also with some humility, because there's
always a chance we could be wrong, number one, and number two, nothing
Q Are you aware, as President, of the brain drain that --
the tremendous power we have to get the best young scientists coming
over here and how few of our young people go over to work now --
THE PRESIDENT: There might be a way for my successor to
institutionalize a little offset there. For example, you know, I worry
about that -- if you just take in the information technology area, and
you get out of it -- you just forget about the labs, there are 700
companies today, in Silicon Valley alone, headed by Indians -- 700. And
just in Silicon Valley. It was just stunning, you know? Now a lot of
them are also active back home.
But I think there needs to be a way for us to try to share
both the scientific and the economic benefits of our enormous
infrastructure here. I'd like to see America used, in that sense, as
sort of a global lab, but with the ability to send our folks back out,
send their people who come here back out, finance educational and
research exchanges, and even as I said, even operational exchanges. I
think that we need to -- this is not a resource we should husband so
much as share.
Q Jiang Zemin -- you remind me of Jiang Zemin, because he
is very proud of his trip to Silicon Valley, where he noticed the
incredible percentage of the folks in one of the companies that he
visited who were Chinese born and so forth. I know that -- I was told
by one of the vice presidents at Merc that 20 percent of their hires are
born in China. But thinking about Jiang Zemin, he made the remark that,
on a personal level, one of the things he was proud of was that he
thought he brought some engineering expertise and discussions on the
highest level. And I was wondering, is it really the case that when you
guys get together at big events, that science is even discussed amongst
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes.
THE PRESIDENT: Of course. I've worked with Jiang Zemin for
eight years now, and I have a very high regard for him. He's a highly
intelligent man, and he also -- he speaks Romanian, Russian, English --
he lived in Romania for a while. I think he speaks a little German.
Q He said very nice things about Hillary.
THE PRESIDENT: He did?
Q Yes, because he said he was sitting next to her --
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, he likes her.
Q He thinks she's great.
THE PRESIDENT: He is quite proud of his training. And he
tries to bring that perspective to a lot of what he does. So we've had
a lot of discussions about it. We've also had some arguments about it.
I've had some -- I even had the Chinese environmental minister thank me,
on my trip to China, for doing a climate change event. Because he said,
we've got to convince people that you're not trying to slow our economic
growth. This really is a whole different way of looking at the world.
Q So with Blair and Chirac and so forth, occasionally
science issues are actually discussed?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I talk to Tony Blair about them a lot.
And of course, we're dealing with them in more contentious areas, too.
Within Europe, what do they do about mad cow disease, vis a vis the
United States? What do they do about genetically modified organisms?
How do you balance political pressures with scientific reality? How do
you define scientific reality? Do they need a European Union wide
equivalent of the FDA?
Q Genetically modified foods and whatnot?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Because all these things are really --
these are hot issues now. I didn't even mention that earlier when we
started, about all the things that will require a higher level of
scientific knowledge, but that's another example. I mean, all this
controversy over how we produce food and all that, that's going to be --
that's not going away any time soon.
Q Well, you sort of have gotten to some of the questions I
was going to ask you about the future. I thought maybe I'd just ask you
a couple of quick ones, and I don't know, I don't want to take too much
of your time. But I would really like -- I know you and Mrs. Clinton
have been very interested in education. I don't know to what degree
you're familiar with the state of science education, and I don't know if
you have some feelings about -- we just had the latest report come out
about young kids in math and science being -- I think we were 18th or
something. I don't remember myself what the number is now. So I was
wondering if you have some strong feelings about the situation. I know
you do about education in general, but in science in particular?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there are basically two issues.
One is, in a country as big and diverse as ours, how do you get more
kids to take math and science courses at more advanced levels? And
secondly, if you could do that, how would you have enough qualified
teachers to do it? I think -- the one thing I would say is that some
states -- I noticed California passed a really sweeping initiative this
last year to try to give bonuses to people who will enroll -- I think
that what you're going to see inevitably in the future is that you will
have to have more alternative certification mechanisms, and you'll have
to pay people more.
I also think at the advanced levels of science and math, you
may even see a lot of high school systems operating the way colleges do
now, and bringing people in to teach one course or something like that.
I think that you're going to -- since we are going to have a critical
mass of people out there in America who know the things that all of our
kids now need to know, but virtually 100 percent of them are making a
lot more money then they can make teaching school. You're either going
to have to get people who make a lot of money and then can retire -- I
have a friend who's got a daughter who made, I don't know, $30-40
million in her early 30s or late 20s in a software enterprise, who's now
just cashed out and spends all of her time teaching inner-city schools.
But you're either going to have to find tons of people like
that, or you're going to have to find ways to finance the education of
young people to do this work for four or five years, and just recognize
you're only going to have them for four or five years. Or you're going
to have to have, like in junior and senior year at least, have people
who have this knowledge come in and teach a course just like a --
someone would come into a college and teach one course.
In other words, we're going to have to be, I think, flexible
if we want to lift the level of performance in America above where it is
now. Because we have a lot of poor kids, a lot of poor school
districts, very diverse student body, and a huge number of kids. I
mean, most of these places that are doing very well have a much more --
either a more homogenous or smaller or both student body, and a system
that's much more nationalized and much easier to control.
Q Could you just tell me a couple things about -- how do
you feel about, right now, about why NASA, which you're very enthused
about, continues to get a sort of flat budget? Is this a wise thing at
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think that NASA, when I
took office, needed to show that it knew how to economize and could be
managed better. I think Dan Goldin has done that. I think they have
proved that they can do more with less. I mean, they got the space
station up three years ahead of time.
Q But they've also had some disasters, which some people --
THE PRESIDENT: They've also had some disasters, but look -- I
mean, they're out there fooling around with Mars. You're going to have
some disasters. You know, if you want something with 100 percent
success rate, you've got to be involved in something besides space
exploration. You're never going to have that. I think the important
thing is that, from our point of view, NASA responded in an honest, up
front way to their difficulties with the two Mars probes that didn't
work so well, the Lander mission and the other one. And they're going
And I would like to see their budget increase now, because I
think that they have proved, after years and years of flat budgets, that
they have squeezed a lot of blood out of this turnip. They have really
restructured themselves. They have gotten rid of a lot of their
relatively inefficient costs. And I believe that now is the time at
least to let them start growing with inflation again, if they're going
to be able to handle their missions. And I think that what we'll have
to see over the next few years is where we go with Mars, because you've
just got these new pictures, and it looks like there was water there
closer to the surface more recently in time than we thought.
So we need to keep taking pictures. We need to keep trying to
-- not withstanding what happened to the Lander module, we need to find
some way to put a vehicle down there that can actually physically get
some stuff off the surface and bring it back to us. We need to keep --
and then I think the rest of the space budget may be in some measure
determined by exactly what is going on at the space station, how much
progress we'll be making in the whole -- you know, there's seven, eight,
nine areas of basic research that I think are likely to have enormous
advances as a result of what's going on there. And I think that in
these two things, more than anything else, will dictate how much money
NASA needs and what they need it for.
Q So, now that you're released your inner nerd, my last
question is, do you think you'll do anything related to science in your
THE PRESIDENT: When I leave here?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I certainly hope so. I'm very interested
in continuing to work in the climate change area in particular, and
doing what I can to convince the political systems of countries that
have to participate in this that there are economically beneficial ways
to do the right thing for the global environment. And in order to do
that, we have to continue the basic research into alternative fuels and
alternative technologies. There is no way to solve this over the long
run, unless you can get more growth out of fewer greenhouse gasses.
There is no way to do it. And so, on that alone, I will continue to be
The other thing that I'm particularly personally interested in
is the breakdown of public health systems in so many countries, and how
it disables them from dealing with things like the AIDS epidemic and
other problems and what we can do to sort of put that back together
again. So I expect those are two areas that I'll be involved in for a
long time to come if I have the opportunity to be.
Q Thanks very much. I hope that we can ask you some
questions about it later, when you're doing those things.
THE PRESIDENT: Thanks.
END 4:55 P.M. EST