John Holdren wins National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award

John Holdren.

Photo by Martha Stewart

3 min read

John P. Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is receiving the National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal, for his five decades of work combining science and public service, especially his eight years as President Obama’s science advisor.

The National Academy of Sciences announced the award Wednesday and will present it to Holdren at a ceremony in May. Holdren is co-director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program in the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

NAS president Marcia McNutt said: “As one of our most outstanding and effective public servants, John Holdren has more than fulfilled the call to ‘restore science to its rightful place,’ as he was charged to do by President Obama. He has helped shape sound national policy on everything from climate change to international nuclear arms control, and his efforts to ensure the strength of our scientific enterprise will reverberate for generations to come. We are pleased to present him with our highest honor.”

Susan Wessler, the NAS home secretary and chair of the award selection committee, added: “He has made it his mission to employ science to improve society and to ensure that public policy is informed by research and evidence — greatly benefiting our nation and the world.”

The NAS first awarded the annual Public Welfare Medal in 1914 “to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good.” Last year’s recipient was Anthony Fauci, and earlier winners have included Bill and Melinda Gates, C. Everett Koop, Carl Sagan, and in 2018, Harvard professor Paul Farmer for his pioneering work in health care.

“I’m hugely honored,” Holdren said, “not least because of my immense admiration for so many of those who received the Public Welfare Medal in previous years — from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pioneering science advisor, Vannevar Bush, who got it in 1945, to Tony Fauci.  Not sure I deserve this great company, but I’m most grateful.”

Holdren served Obama throughout his two terms in multiple roles — including as the longest-serving presidential science advisor since World War II. He was also 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, advising on the role of science and technology in the economy, public health, energy, and climate change. He counseled the president on issues including the H1N1 flu and Ebola outbreaks, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“John Holdren has set a stellar example for Kennedy School students of how to combine scholarship and public service for the best and highest purpose,” said Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf. “He has been more than a beloved teacher. He has shown what it can mean when science is translated into policies and practice that serve all of us.”