John Holdren Reflects on his time at the White House, and on his Return to HKS

March 20, 2017

John Holdren, national science advisor to President Barack Obama for the past eight years, rejoined the Harvard Kennedy School faculty in February as the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy. The longest serving presidential science advisor since the post was created in World War II, Holdren served as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He joins Dan Schrag as co-director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy (STPP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Q: What would you say were some of the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishments in the area of science and technology (S&T) over the last eight years? 

HOLDREN: Above all, President Obama kept the pledge he made in his first Inaugural Address to “restore science to its rightful place” in his administration.   

This entailed, first, bringing top science and engineering talent into presidentially appointed positions (five Nobel Laureates in Science and more than 25 members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in the first batch of presidential appointments); creating new high-level S&T positions in the White House (the first-ever U.S. Chief Technology Officer, U.S. Chief Information Officer, and U.S. Chief Data Scientist); creating the Presidential Innovation Fellows as a means of bringing top innovation talent from business, academia, and civil society into government for one-year stints as trouble-shooters and problem solvers across executive branch departments and agencies; insisting that his S&T appointees be “at the table” for all policy discussions in which insights from S&T could be germane; and lifting up scientific integrity, transparency, and public access to the results of federally funded research as governing principles across the executive branch.   

In addition, the President put $100 billion for science and technology into the 2009 Recovery Act, including about $20 billion for research, which was the single largest boost in federal S&T spending in history. He then used as much discretion as was available to him—under budget constraints insisted upon by Congress— to protect federal R&D investments going forward. (We were not able to get all the increases we wanted, but R&D in clean and efficient energy, biomedical research, and agriculture, among other fields, went up.)   

Notable also was the unprecedented array of S&T and STEM-education initiatives (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and math), most of them in partnership with business, academia, and civil society. These spanned S&T for economic recovery and sustainable growth (initiatives in advanced manufacturing, the bio-economy, information technology, job training, and entrepreneurship); biomedicine and public health (the BRAIN Initiative, Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, the Precision Medicine Initiative, the Cancer Moonshot); resource management (the National Ocean Policy, the Arctic Initiative, the expansion of protected lands and waters); energy and climate change (the Energy Innovation Hubs, the Climate Action Plan, the Climate Education and Literacy Initiative, American Business Acts on Climate); STEM education (Educate to Innovate, the Master Teacher Corps, the 100kin10 initiative to train 100,000 new STEM-ed teachers in a decade); and more. 

A write-up of 100 achievements of the Obama Administration in science, technology, and innovation is available here.

Q: You have spent much of your career warning about the dangers of climate change. While there continue to be deniers and skeptics, would you say overall that progress is being made regarding public awareness of climate change? 

HOLDREN: Skepticism is healthy in science; breakthroughs are most often made by scientists challenging the perceived wisdom in domains they have worked to understand thoroughly. But what we have been seeing in the climate-change-denial domain is not healthy skepticism; it is some combination of wishful and willful substitution of fantasy for scientific understanding, most of it by people with no qualifications in science and nearly all of it by people with no qualifications in climate science. The public for the most part is no longer being fooled. Most polls show that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believe climate change is real, dangerous, caused mainly by human activity, and deserving of increased efforts at remedy. Perhaps the biggest driver of increased public understanding (in spite of the effectiveness of the deniers in a sound-bite (and tweet) culture that rarely allows for misrepresentations to be thoroughly rebutted), is that the symptoms of damaging climate change—increases in extreme heat, torrential downpours and flooding, massive wildfires, ever more powerful storms, sea-level rise—are becoming increasingly conspicuous in our lives and on our TV screens, tablets, and smartphones. 

Q: Do you believe the 2015 Paris Accord went far enough in getting us to where we need to go in seriously addressing climate change? 

HOLDREN: The Paris Accord, with its commitments by nearly 200 countries to reduce their emissions of climate-altering gases by specified amounts on specified timescales, was a huge step forward. But let me make three observations to elaborate on that.   

First, the world’s chances of avoiding a disastrous degree of climate change would be much better now if that accord had been reached a quarter century earlier, in 1990, when scientific understanding of what was happening and its dangers was already well enough advanced to justify those or stronger measures. Then, there was still a chance of what became the UN-endorsed goal of “avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.” Today, we are already well into the “dangerous” zone and can only hope it is still possible to avoid “catastrophic interference.” We owe the dilly-dallying over the course of the intervening quarter century, in large part, to the confusion sowed by the so-called skeptics about the reality and urgency of the challenge. 

Second, besides its belated arrival, the 2015 Paris Accord is only a down payment on the global emissions reductions that will be required if a catastrophic degree of climate change is to be avoided.  The commitments under the Accord extend only until 2030, and continued increasingly steep reductions in global emissions will be needed thereafter. Achieving these reductions will require significant advances, virtually everywhere, in the efficiency with which raw energy is used to provide the goods and services that people want and need, as well as in the share of that raw energy that comes from the combination of renewable sources, nuclear energy, and fossil-fuel technologies that capture carbon dioxide and sequester it away from the atmosphere.   

Third, as should be obvious but is too rarely emphasized because of political sensitivities, success in reducing emissions as much as needed to avert climate disaster would be more easily achieved if the number of people who must be supplied with energy services—that is, the world’s population—is at the low end of United Nations projections in 2050 and 2100 rather than at the high end. (The best way to get that done is to lift up the status of women around the world and the services available to them.) 

Q: What are the most critical issues in the science and technology realm where the Trump Administration can make significant progress over the next four years? 

HOLDREN: I wish there were more indications of interest, on the part of the Trump Administration, in making progress on critical issues in the S&T realm. While President Obama understood how and why the federal government’s investments in and encouragement of science, technology, and innovation are essential for advancing virtually every major societal goal—economic vitality, environmental quality, public health, and national security, among others—that recognition seems absent so far in the statements and actions of President Trump and most of the top officials he has appointed until now. (It can be added that nearly all of the top S&T positions in the Trump Administration remain vacant at this point, itself a bad sign.) 

The federal budget that President Trump has proposed would be a disaster for the nation’s global leadership in science and technology and for the contributions of science and technology to the quality of life and security of U.S. citizens going forward. If he can actually deliver on his promise to lower taxes, increase defense spending, invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, and leave Social Security and Medicare unscathed, this will mean staggering cuts in virtually all aspects of discretionary spending other than defense and infrastructure. On the chopping block, it must be expected, will be much of the federal investment in basic research (which for well understood reasons the private sector will never fully replace), as well as research, development, and operations around earth observations (including those that support all weather forecasts); cleaner and more efficient energy technologies; increased agricultural productivity; safe drinking water; clean air, space exploration; and much more. 

Even federal investments in biomedical advances to improve public health, which historically have had strong bipartisan support, are likely to be at serious risk under the Trump regime. There simply won’t be enough money in the discretionary side of the federal budget—after increases in defense and infrastructure take their bite--to support the likes of President Obama’s initiatives in neuroscience, cancer research, vaccine development, combating antibiotic resistance, and precision medicine.

Perhaps most fundamentally, there is reason to worry that much of what President Obama put in place in the way of “science in its rightful place” in government—meaning a focus on recruiting to government and retaining the best possible S&T talent and unleashing it in support of evidence-based decision making and more responsive, transparent, and effective government overall—will be swept away under President Trump. I hope I am wrong, but so far there is little sign of interest by the President or his top lieutenants in the White House, in science, technology, or evidence.  

Q: Finally, are you looking forward to resuming your responsibilities at STPP?  

HOLDREN: I enjoyed immensely my eight years in the White House as President Obama’s science advisor.  Besides working under the most science-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson (who was his own science advisor), I had an incredibly capable, committed, and productive team supporting me and the President in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; superbly capable and collaborative colleagues all across the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Management and Budget, the Domestic Policy Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Security Council; an extraordinarily engaged and effective set of national S&T leaders serving pro bono on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; and amazing S&T leadership in the relevant positions across the relevant federal departments and agencies.    

But the science advisor position turns over with the presidency, so I was slated to leave the White House in January no matter who won the election. While I wish the Obama leadership team had been able to hand over the reins to a better group of successors, I myself am happy indeed to be back at the Harvard Kennedy School as Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and back in the Belfer Center as co-director, with Dan Schrag, of the Center’s Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy. This pleasure is only amplified the affiliation with HKS of so many of my former colleagues in the Obama Administration, including but by no means limited to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Senior Advisor to the President Brian Deese, National Economic Council Chair Larry Summers, Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske, and Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein. We, and my other colleagues old and new on the Harvard faculty, have a lot still to do together.

John Holdren at HKS

John Holdren, national science advisor to President Barack Obama for the past eight years, rejoined the Harvard Kennedy School faculty in February as the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy. Photo credit Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer.

 


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page