Interview: The White House’s Science Guy

  • Holdren was previously the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (Photo courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences)

President Obama’s Science and Technology advisor is John P. Holdren. He is the “science guy” in the White House. Lester Graham talked to him about science and climate change. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:


Graham: Different polls have shown the general public is becoming increasingly skeptical about whether climate change is real and whether burning fossil fuels is contributing to it, ignoring that the bulk of science says climate change is solid and if anything indicates that climate change is happening faster than first predicted. What can be done about that?

Holdren: Well I think scientists have to get better at telling the story about what we know about climate change and what that knowledge is based on. In other words, what we know and how we know it. Willingness to get out there and slug it out in the arena of public debate and dispute is not universal in the scientific community, and we have to live with that, but scientists who’ve been willing to do that have done a service. It’s unfortunate that they occasionally get castigated for speaking their minds freely and candidly in public, but that’s part of being, in a sense, a public scientist—of working on scientific issues that have major ramifications for public policy and being willing to talk about it.

Graham: President Barack Obama promised to protect scientific research from politics. He wanted guidelines in four months from taking office. We recently reported it’s been more than a year now, and still, no guidelines. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the president should finish explicit written policies on things like protecting scientists who become whistle-blowers. When we did the story, we contacted your office, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and we didn’t get any comment. Would you care to comment about that now?

Holdren: Sure, when the president issued his memorandum on scientific integrity on march 9th of last year, he actually enunciated at that time a set of principles, and those principles are already a solid basis for ensuring scientific integrity. What has not been forthcoming yet from my office, and for that I take responsibility, is a set of more detailed recommendations about how to proceed in some of the difficult questions that come up. Like the need of an agency to be sure that it is relying on the best peer-reviewed science, and the desire of every scientist in the agency to be able to express his or her own opinion. There are real tensions there. That has proven to be a more difficult task than I or the president realized at the time he issued the deadline for completing those, and the result is we missed a deadline, but we will be coming out soon with those additional guidelines.

Graham: How soon?

Holdren: I would guess in the next couple of months.

Graham: On energy policy, environmentalists are disappointed the Obama administration is encouraging the idea of clean coal technology, and a new generation of nuclear power. I’m not saying you’re not spending more on solar and wind, but I’m asking why not take all those dollars from clean coal technology and nuclear, and put it all into these green renewable that the environmentalists like.

Holdren: I think we need a diversity of options for addressing the energy challenges we face. You never want to put all of your eggs in one, or only a few, baskets. Today in this country we get 50% of our electricity by burning coal, we’re going to continue to do that for some time to come. It is, therefore, appropriate and necessary that we improve the technologies with which we burn coal in order to substantially reduce the environmental harm that comes from that. We get 20% of our electricity in this country from nuclear energy, and it’s one of the ways that we can get electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. There is no free lunch; that doesn’t mean we should do nothing, we should be working to improve all of these technologies, and then use the mix that makes the best sense in terms of all of the relevant characteristics—the economic ones, the environmental ones, the social ones.

Graham: John P Holdren is President Obama’s science and technology adviser, and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Thanks for the time.

Holdren: Thanks very much.

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