New York City's Mayor Is A Geek At Heart

Did you know Mayor Michael Bloomberg has an engineering degree and built a ham radio as a child? The mayor talks about his passion for science and how it shapes the way he thinks. He also discusses plans for an applied sciences campus in New York and potential spin-offs from the project.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're under the whale, broadcasting from the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My next guest is at the helm of the most competitive city in the world. His job has been described as the second-toughest in America, after the presidency, I guess.

Michael Bloomberg is in his third...

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Let me interrupt. This is a true story. John Lindsay said he had the second-toughest job in the world, and this is true. Ronald Reagan said the way he does it, it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOOMBERG: True story.

FLATOW: There you have it.

BLOOMBERG: Now you know.

FLATOW: Yeah, Michael Bloomberg is in his third term as mayor of New York, and he's behind the city's smoking ban, the bike lanes, and an effort to plant a million trees. But you've already heard these things about his honor many times.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: But there's a side to the mayor we want to talk about tonight, and that is sort of the geeky side of Mayor Bloomberg, which you probably don't know much about. He's an electrical engineer, has a degree in electrical engineering, correct?

BLOOMBERG: Well, I was an electrical engineering student, but none of my professors thought that I would ever be an electrical engineer, which is why I went to business school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You tweeted that your New Year's resolution was to learn computer code.

BLOOMBERG: I didn't tweet that, but my staff did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So we take that as a no?

BLOOMBERG: No, and in all fairness, I got a lot of applause for the million trees. Bette Midler is the one that deserves the credit. It was her idea. She has spearheaded raising the money for that. And I think we've planted about 600,000 of the million trees so far. But the great Ms. M. deserves the credit, she really does.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: I heard somewhere that you build a ham radio as a child.

BLOOMBERG: I was a ham radio operator, yeah.

FLATOW: What was your call letters, do you remember?

BLOOMBERG: I don't remember, just don't remember. My Morse code, I was OK with the code, but I can't spell and for Morse code that's a big problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Where do you think your love for science began? Did you always have that?

BLOOMBERG: I grew up going to the Museum of Science in Boston. Every Saturday morning, they had classes for a couple of hours, and I don't know how somebody got me interested at the beginning or got me to go, but I lived in Medford, Massachusetts. I'd take the bus to Sullivan Square, the subway into I forget where you changed to the trolley and the trolley over to the Museum of Science, and it was just magical.

And I've always liked things where you can understand from beginning to end, and it's rational. And that's why I've been studying Spanish for six, seven years now and trying to learn to play golf for seven or eight years, and I'm terrible at both. And part of the reason is I think sequentially, and when the instructor says oh just do it, I don't. I stop every word.

If I don't understand it and understand the spelling and the termination and the rule that says the pronoun goes before, and the subject goes afterwards, or in my golf swing, your hands are here, and your wrists are there, and...

FLATOW: A lot to think about in...

BLOOMBERG: And being an engineer has its disadvantages, too.

FLATOW: I have an engineering degree myself. I understand exactly...

BLOOMBERG: It's just literal.

FLATOW: ...what you're talking about, you deconstruct everything and figure out how it works.

BLOOMBERG: But that's what I like. I love - I'm a pilot, and I love flying in bad weather because all of the instruments, if you don't really believe, you die.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOOMBERG: But that's really true. You have to trust science, and if the thing says turn here, go here, do this, your wings are doing this, you have to understand it and follow it. And one of the things that's always annoyed me, people always talk about the X, Y, Z, well, we've got to do the X, Y, Z. And you say what is X, Y, Z? Oh, I don't know. People don't stop to ask questions.

People are afraid to ask and to let people understand that they don't know, and if you just said I don't understand it, you'll find that nobody else in the room understood it, either. You were the only one with the courage to stand up.

But I've never had a problem in saying love to help you, but I don't know, explain it to me.

FLATOW: Yeah. You have found yourself defending science lately. Science has been under attack lately, has it not?

BLOOMBERG: Science has - sadly in this country, science is under attack. It's hard to understand people that don't believe in climate change. You may argue with the science of when something's happening or why or even whether it's happening, but to just dismiss it because you know it's not right, or you have a political agenda that says it's not right, that really is intellectually dishonest and dangerous.

And I think in this country, we're going unfortunately - while the rest of the world is focusing on teaching kids science and math and the skills for the new world, in parts of this country we're not teaching science anymore because the issue is intelligent design or creationalism or, you know, I mean, and even science teachers today are under attack.

FLATOW: Is that why your love for science, technology and engineering, is that why you're going to be building an applied sciences and engineering campus here in New York?

BLOOMBERG: Well, I'd like to think even if I didn't have an interest in science we'd do that.

FLATOW: Tell us about the project.

BLOOMBERG: We took a look at, when I came into office, at what New York City needed to prosper and to grow. And everybody said the same thing: We need a better educated workforce, and we need people educated in the businesses that we're going to grow and create jobs, and they tend to be technological in this day and age.

And then Bob Steele, one of my deputy mayors, and Seth Pinsky, who runs the economic development corporation, came up with this idea of us taking a piece of land, part of Roosevelt Island, the part that is just south of the Queensboro Bridge. There's an old hospital, we're moving the patients out. We've built a new hospital. It's a valuable piece of land but not for everybody, and creating a competition and offering it to a university.

We were amazed at how many different universities wanted to participate in the competition. Cornell won it. They were the right ones to win it. They were so far better than anybody else in terms of coming up with a proposal that fit the needs of the city. Without even asking, they said, well, of course we're going to train 200 science and math teachers in the public school system every year. Of course we're going to train 10,000 kids. Of course we're going to have a venture capital fund. And oh, by the way, that's going to start next September, not waiting until we've built it out. Cornell has a big hospital here. So they're big in biosciences.

The competition had some schools that were big in the social media. So Cornell, to fill in that gap, created a - brought in the Technion Institute in Israel, which is a lot more IT kinds of stuff. And it's a real powerhouse combination.

But they won the competition. The city is giving them the land. We agree to put $100 million into infrastructure on the island, and they have to go out and raise a few billion dollars to build the campus. And there are steps by X number - this date, they've got to have this number of students and faculty and space built out, and it's over 20 or 30 years.

It's a graduate school. It's not an undergraduate school. But it's going to create an interest here and bring other schools here, and so we're going to be what Boston is, and we've already eclipsed them, and what Silicon Valley is, and we're catching up with them very rapidly.

In the end, if you think about it, New York has something that no other city has. We are the intellectual capital of the country and arguably of the world. And that makes it a great place for people who want to broaden their horizons. You have to have great cultural institutions. You have to have other people in the same business.

Engineers like to change jobs frequently. So they don't want to go to work for a company that's in a place where they can't interview everybody else all the time. It's just part of that business. And New York City is the place where you get a chance to talk to people that can raise - give you money to raise, get the message out, all of these different things fit together better in New York City, I think, than anyplace else.

And our big problem is having people that will, down the road for the next decades, be the engineers and the scientists that will attract other businesses here, they don't have to be doing it all. And this puts us on a map.

I was told at the very beginning, when we started this competition, that we will never be a big factor in education because Boston is the education city. I did point out to that person that New York City has more undergraduate and graduate students than Boston has people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BLOOMBERG: Now, the one thing Boston does have is one of the sports reporters wrote that this guy Jeremy Lin who plays for the New York Knicks, they say he came out of nowhere. Well, if Harvard University is nowheres, we should rethink education, but nevertheless.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So you expect a lot of spin-offs to come out of this?

BLOOMBERG: Yeah, people that, in graduate school they create businesses where they live partially because they're still finishing up their degrees while they start the business, or they're starting it with other people who are, and just the logistics are it's hard to move your business away from where you go to school.

That's why you see so many start-ups in Silicon Valley although it's interesting, if you look at Silicon Valley, a lot of people are moving to San Francisco. Why? Because Silicon Valley is very nice, and I love visiting there, it's great golf and bicycling, and it's wonderful, but it's not San Francisco, and San Francisco's not New York.

So if you want to do other things, it doesn't have it. It does have a great climate, and Stanford is one of the great universities in the world. But if you're going to have a business there, and you start saying, well, I'm going to raise my kids there, a lot of people want to move to bigger cities, and New York is already it.

FLATOW: I heard word, I don't know how true this was, I heard somebody mention just the other day that New York already has more IT professionals than people on Wall Street. Is that right?

BLOOMBERG: That may very well - I don't know whether that's true, but it's getting there if it isn't. Google bought a whole square block building for 5,000 or 6,000 people. Bloomberg has close to 10,000 people in New York City now, of which half at least have to be engineers and computer science people. Facebook and Apple - I don't know about Apple. Facebook and Microsoft and Twitter, all these companies are opening branches here - not sales branches. They're opening engineering branches because they - businesses like those, you go where the talent is.

If you want to grow corn, New York City is not the city for you. We don't have big, open spaces. If you want to make a million T-shirts, we're not the place for you, we don't have labor that's very low-price. If you want to build a steel mill, it's not in New York City. We wouldn't allow all the junk in the air and that sort of thing.

But if intellectual capital is what your business is about, this is the center, and the mixture of New York, the diversity of New York really gives it a leg up. And I keep saying for these other cities, if you want to stop the hallowing out of your city, it is immigrants that will be your salvation. And sadly it seems all the time, when the going gets tough, everybody starts blaming immigrants, and in fact immigrants are the solution.

FLATOW: After the break, lots more on science in the city with my guest New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. So stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: Welcome back. We're at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, talking about all things science and technology with my guest, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. We'll take a question if anybody wants to come up to the mic. We'll take a question or two from the audience, if you'd like to step up to the mic.

BLOOMBERG: You can see they're rushing.

FLATOW: No, no, don't - get up to the mic.

BLOOMBERG: It's my cousin. I got him to do that.

FLATOW: While he's doing it, let me ask you this other question about global warming. I mean, you're in a city that's surrounded by water, and the coastlines of America are surrounded by water. How do you plan - and we know the oceans are going to rise. How do you plan so far in advance to transfer people, to build things to keep the water back?

BLOOMBERG: Well, part of it, you can't plan that far in advance. The political process, if you want to - if you really care about the environment, my suggestion is do not tie it to global warming because nobody believes or cares what's going to happen 50 years from now. You're all going to - I mean, it's like Congress saying we have goals that we'll meet it in 50 years. They're all going to be dead. I mean, get serious here.

But if you say, if you want to clean up the environment, you say the water you drink is killing you, the air you breathe is sending your kid to the hospital, the congestion right now is hurting your business, that resonates. And so people will do what you want.

But you've got to bring things to the public in a short-term, me or my kids.

FLATOW: But at some point, someone is going to have to - some mayor or governor is going to have to tackle that problem.

BLOOMBERG: Well, you know, maybe it won't rise as fast. Maybe we can figure out some ways to get carbon out of the - CO2 out of the air. But you can build up barriers. Look, you know, Amsterdam is below sea level, and yet they're surviving. You go there, you drive on the road, and...

FLATOW: But it's expensive, and somebody has to think about paying for all that stuff.

BLOOMBERG: Yeah, but you don't do it today. In all fairness, that's 50 years from now kind of thing. I would suggest when you buy a summer house - I had a summer house when I first came to New York from 1967, for I think it was 11 years, five guys, five-bedroom house. That house is now in the Azores, and the ocean's across the street, but I can't tell you we worried about it then. We just rented it in any case.

FLATOW: All right, yes, sir.

ORRIN BARAK: Hi, Mayor Bloomberg. Ira's question actually segues into what I wanted to ask you.

FLATOW: We didn't plan this.

BARAK: My name is Orrin Barak(ph). I went to U.C. Berkeley and studied econ and environmental science. And I wanted to ask you, for the future of New York, reducing energy, reducing emissions: What do you think is going to be the best solution, tax incentives, regulation or businesses realizing that it's going to in the long run affect their bottom line and be an asset to them?

BLOOMBERG: We passed laws that say you've got to get rid of number six oil, number four oil and go to number two oil, encourage people to go to natural gas in heating their buildings. New York City is different than other cities. In most cities, 80 percent of the greenhouse gases come from transportation, 20 percent from buildings. In New York, it's exactly the reverse, 80 percent from buildings, 20 percent from transportation because people walk, take mass transit, and there just - there's a limit to the number of cars that fit on our streets, and that's not going to change.

So it - and some of the transportation is getting a little bit better. So we focused on buildings. We've focused on power plants. My foundation, I gave $50 million to the Sierra Club to work on closing existing coal-fired plants throughout the country.

The Sierra Club has done a very good job of stopping new coal-fired power plants. They can marshal people to man the barricades, protest, write letters, and they have been very successful, which is why we picked them to work on the existing ones.

And the good news is that at the moment, natural gas is so cheap that the economics, even when we start pressuring them a little bit, they don't fight that hard because converting to natural gas, which we have plenty of and look like we will have for a long time, is a better economic deal.

Now, natural gas has its problems. It's not totally clean. But it's an awful lot better than coal. I think a third of the greenhouse gases in this country come from coal-fired plants. So - but you can do it with regulation. You can do it with economics. What I make the case for companies is you want to have your company environmentally friendly.

When we go out and recruit young people, there's two pictures that we always give, which usually, I'm told - I don't get involved but I'm usually told it seals the deal. One, they say: Where else can you go to work for a company where 100 percent of the profits are going to charity? Because in my case, I can't spend it. I'm going to give it away. It's all going to the foundation. And two, that we're very environmentally friendly.

And about a month ago, much - I didn't know we were doing it, but it turns out we have a big Princeton complex of a couple thousand people where we collect data, two or three big buildings, and we just rented some farmland that wasn't being used around it, put in solar panels, and we now generate 70 percent of our energy in our Princeton office from solar. The paybacks are 2.7 years, as I remember.

FLATOW: Could we have more solar in New York and wind energy in New York?

BLOOMBERG: Well, the wind is less dependable. The technology today, wind is better than solar. You need another breakthrough in solar, really, which a lot of companies are working on, and somebody will figure out how to make a less - a lot of pollution in making solar cells, but making it less polluting and making them much more efficient.

At the moment, wind is a better deal. The trouble with wind is everybody can see the windmills, and there's some environmental issues, people are worried about birds, or Teddy Kennedy didn't want to see them on the horizon out of Hyannis Port, literally...

FLATOW: What about off the coast of New York and New Jersey?

BLOOMBERG: Well, it off the coast of Cape Cod, and that's a very famous story. People wanted to do it, the money was there, that sort of thing, and Teddy Kennedy really did stop it in Congress because he thought it would pollute the view.

I've seen off the Netherlands some of their - they have some big solar farms. You have to have binoculars of super-strength to even see it on the horizon. And if we told you it was an art project, you'd say oh, isn't it wonderful, bring it closer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOOMBERG: But I think the answer is you want to convince people that it is in their interest because in the end, everything else comes out of that. You want to pass laws that force them to make conversions that - or give tax incentives. And there are some of those things that work.

The problem we have is that when we give you tax incentive, then people say oh, they're getting too good a deal on their taxes. And, you know, it's like this craziness with Buffett and his secretary. We have - we tax capital gains at a lower rate to encourage people to invest. The good news is that's exactly what Buffett's doing, what the economic incentives are there.

The issue is not does he pay fewer - less taxes percentage-wise than his secretary. The issue is: Should we or should we not encourage people to invest with capital gains taxes lower than ordinary? Take your pick. It's not an issue of him versus his secretary, it's an issue of what is in the national interest.

And a lot of the populism in our tax policy right now doesn't - begs the fact that those tax policies were put in generally to encourage or discourage various types of economic activity, and so you should go back and see do you want - do you encourage people to drill or not to drill, to mine or not to mine, to build housing or not to build housing? Decide what you want to do, and see whether those tax policies work, and if they don't, then get rid of them.

FLATOW: Mayor Bloomberg, we've run out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

BLOOMBERG: Happy to have it, all the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: Full interview with New York City Mayor Bloomberg is available on a podcast, or you can download it from our website at sciencefriday.com.

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