Science & Tech

John P. Holdren named President-elect Obama’s Science Advisor

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Broad Institute Director Eric Lander named a co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

President-elect Barack Obama today announced that he has selected Harvard’s John P. Holdren to serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology in the new administration. The post, popularly known as “the President’s science advisor,” also includes directorship of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President and requires Senate confirmation.

In announcing the appointment during his weekly radio address, the President-elect called Holdren “one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the
growing threat of climate change,” and said he looks “forward to his wise counsel in
the years ahead.”

Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

During the address, Obama also announced that Eric Lander, professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and founding director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, will serve with Holdren and Harold Varmus, National Institutes of Health Director during the Clinton Administration, as a co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Speaking forcefully for the need not only to advance science and technology as a part of the national agenda, but also to insure that scientific information drives science policy, Obama said that, “right now, in labs, classrooms and companies across America, our leading minds are hard at work chasing the next big idea, on the cusp of breakthroughs that could revolutionize our lives. But history tells us that they cannot do it alone. From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.”

The President-elect went on to say that “…the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work,” Obama said.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, called the appointment of John Holdren, Eric Lander, and Harold Varmus “inspired.” These are great scientists and proven leaders who will work well together to restore the highest scientific values to the nation’s research and technology enterprise,” Hyman said.

In addition to his Kennedy School appointments, John Holdren is also Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and President and Director of the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. He has been at Harvard since 1996 and affiliated part-time with the Woods Hole Research Center since 1992.

Holdren holds MS and PhD degrees in aerospace engineering and plasma physics from MIT and Stanford and is a specialist in energy technology and policy, global climate change, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, and science and technology policy. He is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – the largest general science society in the world – and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Belfer Center Director Graham Allison said of President-elect Obama’s expected announcement, “We are proud that President-elect Obama has selected John Holdren as science advisor. John is the very model of a policy-relevant scientist. He has a deep understanding of the dynamics of science and technology as drivers of the challenges society faces, from climate disruption to nuclear danger—and new opportunities for feasible solutions. Over the past decade at the Belfer Center, he has been a great colleague and wise leader of the School’s research on science, technology, and public policy. John’s move to Washington will be a huge loss for Harvard but a tremendous gain for our nation.

“None of the great interlinked challenges of our time – the economy, energy, environment, health, security, and the particular vulnerabilities of the poor to shortfalls in all of these – can be solved without insights and advances from the physical sciences, the life sciences, and engineering,” Holdren said. “President-elect Obama understands this with perfect clarity. To be able to work with him and the rest of the splendid team he has assembled to be sure that the potential of science and technology to build a more prosperous society and a better world is fully developed and exploited in all that his administration does is the greatest opportunity – and the greatest responsibility – of my professional life.”

At Harvard’s Kennedy School, Holdren’s teaching, research, and engagement with public policy have focused on bolstering U.S. efforts to develop and deploy energy technologies to reduce the risks of climate change and overdependence on oil, devising ways to minimize dangers from nuclear weapons and weapon-usable materials, and strengthening the processes by which accurate information about policy-relevant science and technology gets acquired by decision-makers and the public.

Holdren and his Harvard Kennedy School colleagues have also developed substantial programs of cooperation with China and India on development and deployment of cleaner, more efficient energy technologies for addressing the challenges of climate change, oil dependence, and sustainable development. This year he was named to a three-year, nonresident appointment as Guest Professor in the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing (known as “the MIT of China”). 

In the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Harvard University-wide Center for the Environment (HUCE, with which he is also affiliated), Holdren focuses on how better to link the rapidly growing scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of global climate change to the policy challenges of developing adequate remedies in time, as well as on helping students develop their ability to function effectively at this science-policy intersection. From his arrival at Harvard in 1996 until this year, he served as a member of the Board of Tutors of the HUCE-linked undergraduate concentration in Environmental Science and Public Policy

At the Woods Hole Research Center, which is not connected to Harvard except through cooperative projects, Holdren and a staff of ecologists, geographers, geochemists, atmospheric scientists, economists, and policy analysts focus on the biological side of the connection between human activities and global climate change. The Center’s projects include the use of remote-sensing information from satellites to monitor tropical deforestation and other changes in the Earth’s vegetation; on-the-ground studies of the effects of climate change and other human influences on soils, vegetation, and the hydrologic cycle; modeling and analysis of the intensifying competition among human uses of land and vegetation for food, fiber, biofuels, and carbon storage; and policy approaches for making the avoidance of deforestation a pillar of the post-2012 global agreement being worked out under the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change.

In his presidential address to the 2007 annual meeting of the AAAS
presidential address, entitled “Science and Technology for Sustainable
Well-Being”, Holdren addressed five specific challenges under that
heading: meeting the basic needs of the poor; managing the competition
for the land, water, and terrestrial biota of the planet; maintaining
the integrity of the oceans; mastering the energy-economy-environment
dilemma; and moving toward a nuclear weapon-free world. 

He also
identified some ingredients of a general strategy for more
comprehensively and effectively applying science and engineering to
improve the human condition, including:

  • A stronger, clearer focus by scientists and engineers on the largest threats to human well-being;
  • Greater
    emphasis on analysis of threats and remedies by teams that are
    interdisciplinary, intersectoral (government, industry, academia,
    NGOs), international, and intergenerational;
  • Undergraduate science and engineering education and graduate training better matched to these tasks;
  • More attention to interactions among threats and to remedies that address multiple threats at once;
  • Larger
    and more coordinated investments in advances in science and technology
    that meet key needs at lower cost with smaller adverse side effects;
  • Clearer and more compelling arguments to policy-makers about the threats and the remedies; and
  • Increased public science and technology literacy.

the same address, Holdren urged scientists and engineers with an
interest in the intersection of science and technology with sustainable
well-being to “‘tithe’10 percent of your professional time and effort
to working in these and other ways to increase the benefits of science
and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities.
If so much as a substantial fraction of the world’s scientists and
engineers resolved to do this much, the acceleration of progress toward
sustainable well-being for all of Earth’s inhabitants would surprise us

In the policy arena, Holdren has served since its inception in 2002 as Co-Chair of the independent, bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy and was a principal architect of the recommendations on energy-technology innovation strategy in its 2004 and 2007 reports. He was also a coordinating lead author of the 2007 report of the 18-member, 11-nation UN Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, which he had the privilege of presenting to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and summarizing before the General Assembly.

From 1994–2001, he served as a member of former President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), leading major studies requested by the President on US-Russian cooperation to protect nuclear materials from theft, the US program of research on fusion energy, US energy research and development strategy, , and international cooperation on energy-technology innovation. He also served in this period as the US co-chair of a US-Russian bilateral commission on managing the plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons, reporting to Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin.

In parallel with his service on the Clinton PCAST, Holdren chaired the standing Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the US National Academy of Sciences, which advises the government and the nation on a range of matters where science and technology bear directly on the security of the country. During his tenure in this post, the Committee produced major studies on managing surplus plutonium, on the future of US nuclear-weapon policy, and means for monitoring and verifying deep cuts in the world’s nuclear arsenals. Also in this period, Holdren chaired separate committees of the National Academies on technical issues related to ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and on US-India Cooperation on Energy and Environment, as well as co-chairing a joint US-Russian Academy committee on cooperation to reduce risks from nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

Following receipt of his PhD from Stanford in 1970, Holdren worked as a physicist in the Theory Group of the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he remained an active consultant until 1994. In 1972-73, on leave from Livermore, he was Senior Research Fellow in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Environmental Quality Laboratory at Caltech, working on problems of population and development, energy-technology assessment, and causes and consequences of global environmental change.

In 1973 Holdren co-founded the interdisciplinary graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Assistant Professor (1973-75), Associate Professor (1975-78), and Professor (1978-96) of Energy and Resources, as well as Class of 1935 Professor of Energy (1991-96). The hundreds of masters-degree and PhD graduates of his Berkeley program — which is known as the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) and focuses on integrating insights from engineering, environmental science, economics, political science, and law in order to find solutions to the problems of energy, resources, environment, and development — now populate positions of responsibility in the public, private, and NGO sectors all over the world.

From 1991 to 2005, Holdren served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, helping shape that foundation’s programs on international peace and cooperation, environment, and population. In the latter part of that period he chaired the Foundation’s Institutional Policy Committee.

In 1981, Holdren had been one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship (sometimes called “the MacArthur genius award”). He has also been awarded the Public Service Award of the Federation of American Scientists (1979), the Volvo International Environment Prize (1993, jointly with Paul R. Ehrlich), the Forum Award of the American Physical Society (1995), the Kaul Foundation Award for Excellence in Science and Environmental Policy (1999), the Tyler Environment Prize (2000), the John Heinz Prize in Public Policy (2001), and the Fletcher Award of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College (2007). He holds honorary doctorates from the University of Puget Sound (1974), the Colorado School of Mines (1997), and Clark University (2002).

In addition to the rare distinction of membership in both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, Holdren is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the California Academy of Sciences; a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the AAAS; and a former Chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. He also chairs the advisory board of the journal “Innovations.” In 1995, he gave the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organization of prominent scientists and public figures in which he served as Chair of the Executive Committee from 1987–1997.

A clear and engaging speaker, Dr. Holdren is much sought after for
talks to lawmakers, business and professional groups, schools,
colleges, foundations, and other nongovernmental organizations. He has
appeared in many television documentaries on issues of energy,
environment, and international security, as well as in a wide variety
of television and radio interviews including, in April 2008, the “Late
Show with David Letterman.”

Holdren was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and grew up in San Mateo, California, where he attended public schools. His undergraduate education was at MIT, majoring in space science and engineering with minors in physics and German literature. He now resides with his wife of 42 years, biologist Dr. Cheryl E. Holdren, in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They have two grown children and five grandchildren ages 3 to 17.