FLICKR, DOC SEARLSDavid Gelernter, the Yale University computer scientist who endorsed President Donald Trump before the election, is being considered for the post of Science Advisor. Gelernter, who played major roles in developing the Internet and social networks, met with Trump in New York City on January 16, just days before the businessperson was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. The 61-year-old researcher spoke with The Scientist about his vision for science advice under President Trump, his views on climate change, and the roles of immigrants in American science.
The Scientist: Will you take the job if offered?
David Gelernter: Absolutely. It depends on a lot of things. I didn’t reach the position of discussing any logistics and stuff like that. But yes, I certainly am happy to consider it and willing, in principle, to take it.
TS: Have you been contacted by the Trump administration since your initial meeting?
DG: Just on [that] same day. That was my last contact with these guys, and the last thing they said to me was, ‘It may be some time before you hear from us again.’
TS: Who else was in the room besides you and then-President–elect Trump?
DG: Peter Thiel, Steve Bannon, and I think that was it.
TS: Did they contribute to the conversation, or was it more of a one-on-one with you and President Trump?
DG: I’m not able to say this guy said this and that guy said that. I wouldn’t do that if I had a meeting with colleagues here [at Yale]. It’s just not nice. It was a conversation, and obviously Trump was the about-to-be President. There was no question that he was the most important guy in the room, as far as world affairs went.
TS: Did you get a sense from that conversation what might be some of the scientific priorities of the Trump administration going forward, or some of the things that you might be tasked with were to you be named Science Advisor?
DG: The only sense I got was I imagine what one would get in any political situation like this, which is that national security is always at the top of the list. It was clear that the safety of the country was the dominating issue. Not the only issue. I think these guys, I don’t know them well at all, but I think their curiosity is piqued by science and technology. They struck me as the kind of people who read the science pages in the newspaper. . . . These particular ones, all of them, seemed alert to science, interested in science, and up to date on science. As laymen they aren’t researchers, but they struck me as a group of people who do care, who are interested, and who want to know what’s going on.
TS: But national security is the primary objective?
DG: That’s my conclusion. They never said that, but it was obvious. I mean, at no point did they say, ‘Look, I want you to get this: Number one is national security and the rest can go hang.’ They didn’t say anything remotely like that. But it was clear that when they think about science, when they think about technology, the first thing they think about is not string theory or differential geometry or organic computers. The first thing they think about is war and peace, terrorism and safety, and it was so unsurprising to me that I just sort of shrugged it off and said, ‘Certainly.’ It’s exactly what I would have expected.
TS: In terms of your own scientific interests, what would you bring to the role?
DG: My father was a theoretical physicist by training. I grew up loving—and fascinated by—physics, and I think it’s impossible not to be fascinated by physics. I’ve always been interested in neurosciences and the brain and the thinking aspect of human physiology. I published a book last year, called Tides of Mind, about the structure of the mind. [This] is one of the big problems that I’ve spent my career working on. So those aspects of biology and of medicine are of special interest to me also. So if I were picking out three areas, it would be computers and networking, physics, and neurosciences in general.
TS: Where do you fall on climate change?
DG: My own belief is that global warming is real, that it is happening. . . . After all, the Earth’s climate has oscillated clearly in the past. We expect not stability, but oscillation.
The evidence I’ve seen has not convinced me that the cause of this global warming or an appreciable contribution [to it] is human activity. But not until I spend a lot more time with the topic . . . would I be in a position to give anybody advice on it.
This is not advice. This is my impression as a layman, hearing, reading, looking around, and noticing how greatly the propensity is among scientists—and among many others—to overestimate mankind’s capacity for changing the Earth. The fact is, the Earth is a very, very large object, and scientists especially think of themselves as gigantically important, and pushing culture around, and changing civilization—which they do, occasionally, to some extent. But I think some of them haven’t fully grasped what a gigantic proposition it is for measly human activity, whether it’s good or bad, to change something like the climate of a planet in the Solar System. Again, I’m not in a position to give advice about it. I’m as capable as any other layman, or any other scientist from a different field, of giving advice about it. But I wouldn’t do it, just as my colleagues wouldn’t do it until a much deeper point in the process than I’m at now. Those are my opinions as a voter, but they’re not my opinions as a prospective Science Advisor. I don’t know what those are yet.
TS: Many of President Trump’s other appointments have been opposed by Democrats in Congress. Would you expect your nomination to be similarly opposed?
DG: Insofar as there are Democrats who will oppose an appointment on the basis of the candidate being a professed conservative in his views, yeah, they’ll oppose me. Is it a good reason to oppose somebody? Depends on the position. . . . With respect to the position of Science Advisor, yeah, I think it would be kind of a dumb position to take to say . . . This guy, politically, is a conservative. We don’t want him in this position, because that’s what you got in terms of the president that the people voted for.
I’m not jumping on Democrats in advance, either. For all I know, nobody would oppose me. Or maybe they would oppose me for wonderful reasons that I can’t imagine offhand, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some.
TS: What “wonderful reasons?”
DG: I could see somebody saying, This guy comes from technology, from computing, and he’s well informed about science, but we want a chemist, or a biologist, or a natural scientist, or something. If somebody said that, I’d say, OK. I can understand that. In the final analysis, I don’t think it really matters. You’re not going to find anybody who is equally at home in biology, and physics, and chemistry. Everybody is a specialist somewhere or another.
TS: A lot of the Congressional opposition to President Trump’s other appointments has revolved around controversial comments they’ve made in the past. You’ve made some controversial comments in the past.
DG: If people are incapable of understanding irony or anything other than deadly earnestness, yeah, they’ll have trouble with a lot of things that I’ve said. But that’s their problem, not mine. They can vote against me, sure. And if I get voted down, fair enough. But there are good reasons that can keep a person from something he might want or might not want, and there are idiotic reasons. That’s the world we live in.
TS: You don’t see your view, that there is not sufficient evidence to say that humans are contributing in a significant way to climate change, as outside the mainstream school of thought?
DG: Absolutely not. And I think it’s a misunderstanding on the part of the former President [Barack Obama]. The conservative view in any field of science is that when you show up with a radical hypothesis, you’d better be prepared with the evidence. The idea that human beings are changing the climate is a radical hypothesis. That doesn’t mean it might not be true. Many radical hypotheses have proven to be true. But it means that we’re not doing our jobs, we are not behaving responsibly, if we don’t insist on solid evidence. The evidence isn’t there. I think most scientists who are not in the field don’t want to be bothered about this issue. And they’re just human beings like every other—they tend to drink what everyone else is having and to say what people, generally, are saying.
TS: There’s quite a bit of activity among researchers organizing marches in April.
DG: It’s like this is some sort of Looney Tunes thing. I must be trapped in an alternate reality. They couldn’t possibly be serious. I mean, Trump hasn’t done anything. Trump has no science policy. He’s busy with pressing national emergency issues. I mean, Iran launches a missile, you have to do something. You need a policy towards Russia. You need a policy towards North Korea. You need a policy towards immigration, and the E.U., and towards Brexit, and towards Britain, and these things can’t wait. They’ve got to be acted on. So Trump is not walking around pontificating on science. He has no science policy. The idea that he’s anti-science is bigoted. I think it’s the worst kind of bigotry. It’s the kind of bigotry that says, non-Ivy League–PhDs—ordinary human beings who haven’t won any science awards and don’t come from Harvard—are probably too stupid to be interested in science. I’ve seen that attitude all over. I think it’s disgusting, as bigotry generally is disgusting.
Furthermore, if these guys ever do have something to march over, nobody’s going to pay any attention to them. Because if they march now, they are marching about nothing. They’re making fools of themselves. I don’t see why they would do it. And I don’t know anybody serious . . . on either side of the political spectrum who wants to have anything to do with it.
TS: What have you heard from President Trump, either in public statements or in your private conversations with him, that gives you an indication that he does have either an interest in science or respect for evidence as a raw material for policy making?
DG: It would never occur to me to say, Alright President Trump, are you a prejudiced know-nothing, or would you pay attention to the evidence if we brought you evidence saying that your view on X, Y, or Z were wrong? It would be a ridiculous question to ask. It would be a profoundly insulting question to ask. And it’s not a question I would ask an undergraduate, much less a president, unless I had some reason to believe that this person was ignorant and proud of his ignorance or flaunting his ignorance or something like that. And those are exactly the opposite of Trump.
TS: How do you feel about the federal funding of science?
DG: I’d love to see more federal funding for science. I don’t think there are any dollars the country has ever spent that it’s gotten more out of than the dollars it spent on research. On the other hand, I’m also a taxpayer, and I’m not volunteering to double my taxes so that we can put more money into science. I mean, there are things that I’d like to see a lot less money be put into. But in the final analysis, it’s a fight between everyone’s interests, and somebody has to come up with a balance. Is science as well funded as I’d like it to be? No. And I would be delighted if science could be better funded. I would be especially delighted if the process itself were changed so that less time got burnt up in the process of applying for federal grants and federal funding.
TS: Some immigrant scientists have said they are afraid to leave the country for conferences, for example, because they might not be able to come back. What are your thoughts on the impact of Trump’s executive order on immigration on the conduct of science?
DG: The executive order is not written right when people are afraid leaving the country of getting let back in. And those were just errors in the way it was written and in the early implementation. People have admitted that it wasn’t done in the right way, and I assume those errors will be worked out.
It’s a matter of public record that without both immigrants and foreigners in the system we couldn’t keep the science world together in the United States. We need these people. I don’t think there’s the slightest doubt that we’ll continue to get them.
On the other hand, there’s a huge message here that we just refuse hear. And that’s about the laziness of American students. Why do we have to import Asians to do the hard work for us? Importing Asians to be physicists or electrical engineers is just a step up from importing them to be garbage men and shovel off our streets. It is a dishonorable position for a country to be in. And the reason that we’re in this position is that so many of the brightest students at Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Stanford and all these places no longer even think about going into science and getting a doctorate and going into research—not when they can go to law school or business school and know that they’ll be multimillionaires by the time they’re 30 or 35.
We should be sick at heart about the fact that we have to say, Without immigrants, we would be nowhere. We want to be the world’s center of science. We want people to come here from all over the world. But that’s very different from being in the position that we are in today, in which our graduate schools would just dry up. They’d collapse. We’d have no teaching assistants. We’d be unable to make our way forward because there are too few Americans who are taking the time and trouble to go into science and mathematics and engineering. That is a disgraceful state of affairs, and it ought to change.
Editor’s note: According to a 2009 National Science Foundation analysis, “foreign students on temporary visas earned half or more of doctoral degrees awarded in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics. They earned considerably lower proportions of doctoral degrees in other (science and engineering) fields, for example, 29 percent in biological sciences, 8 percent in medical/other life sciences, and 7 percent in psychology.”
That same report found that “From 1989 to 2009, students from four Asian countries/economies (China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan) earned more than half of US science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded to foreign students (122,200 of 223,200)—almost 4 times more than students from Europe (30,000). Most of these degrees were awarded in engineering, biological sciences, and physical sciences.”