- Press Release
- Jan 28, 2023
Interview of the President by 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
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
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
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
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
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 important.
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
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
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
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 it —
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 device.
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 non-defense research.
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 dividend.
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
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 criticized.
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 lasts forever.
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 presidents?
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
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
— 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
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
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 this point?
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
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 forward.
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
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
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 next years?
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
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 very interested.
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