5 November 2007. The Alzforum coverage of the 37th annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience, which is currently in full swing at the San Diego Convention Center, kicks off with a story about engaging scientists in a national conversation about the promise and the funding needs of brain science. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich today told some 2,500 scientists that they have a civic duty to talk with their elected representatives. Gingrich called on the best minds of the country to devote time to educating their elected representatives about what they are doing. After his talk, the speaker told this reporter that Alzheimer disease is a priority to him, and that Congress needs to hear a clear vision from stakeholders—including, importantly, the research community. To this end, Gingrich has initiated the Alzheimer's Study Group under the umbrella of the Center for Health Transformation, a leadership group he founded to explore ways of modernizing health systems. The ASG grew out of a bi-partisan Congressional task force on Alzheimer disease. The group is charged with devising a national strategy for dealing with the projected AD epidemic of 12 to 15 million cases by the year 2050. The group is to present its findings in late spring of 2008. This effort provides an opportunity for the intertwined issues of Alzheimer disease research funding, service provision, and drug testing, to get the attention of Congress and lead to new policy.
“We have an excellent opportunity in brain science now that is not being matched by a vision of breakthrough of the scale that is possible, nor by the scale of funding that you need to achieve those breakthroughs,” Gingrich told ARF. In the interview, the former Speaker was well informed about aspects of translational AD research. For example, he said that the FDA operates on rules built on antiquated science. The regulatory framework guiding clinical trials is, in practice, erecting unreasonable hurdles to efforts to test new drugs, he said. When asked about appropriate levels of risk for clinical trials in AD, Gingrich said that an over-reaching risk averseness in AD can prove to be more of an obstacle to progress than a safeguard for vulnerable patients. In particular, families and patients who know full well that they are facing a deadly disease should not be shut out from the process. Gingrich said that early-stage dementia patients, as well as patients with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases, are effective spokespeople for more and better therapy development, and that he shares their concerns. “We need to take a fresh look at our risk tolerance for these neurologic diseases,” he said. Gingrich also expressed his support for legislation, presently stalled in the Senate, intended to protect people with genetic diseases from insurance and employment discrimination (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act). “The Senate should just pass it as is,” he said.
Gingrich’s plenary lecture started with short videos. In one, Patrick Kennedy, U.S. House of Representatives, Rhode Island, spoke openly of his life with bipolar disorder, and how alcohol and prescription drug abuse accompanied his struggle to deal with the periods of depression and anxiety, in particular. Gingrich then addressed the audience, saying that he understands there have been dramatic advances in biomedical science, but not all politicians do. He urged scientists to change that. “If you work in a field of extraordinary importance to humanity, then you have a civic duty to educate your elected representatives. If you devoted a small portion of your time to communicate about biomedical opportunities and priorities, you would move the country forward. The people who know have a moral responsibility to the people who don't know. Your role as a citizen is as important to society as your role as scientists. If you are too busy to talk to your elected representatives, then you have to quit griping about the ignorant decisions they make,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich called the decline in NIH funding “very inappropriate” and supported massive increases in the budgets of NIH and NSF as essential to continue U.S. leadership in science. He encouraged all forms of communication—writing letters to the editor, calling and e-mailing Congress(wo)men, calling in to talk radio, attending town hall meetings—and insisted in response to a skeptical question from the audience that this does indeed create momentum and moves the system.
In a question-and-answer session, Gingrich faced an audience that was at turns friendly and adversarial. When asked about stem cell research, he said that he supports federal funding only for research that does not require destruction of embryos, and that state and private initiatives now fund stem cell research more broadly. When asked about the influence of neo-creationism/intelligent design on science education in the nation’s schools, he said: “I have no problem with creationism being taught as philosophy and every problem with it being taught as science.” Gingrich argued for radical changes to the way math and science are taught in school, claiming that current methods simply are not working. He urged scientists to welcome adolescents into their labs for internships much more frequently. In response to a critical question about current science policy, he merely noted: “I long ago quit trying to explain this administration.”—Gabrielle Strobel.