Press Release

Harvard Kennedy School's John P. Holdren Named Obama's Science Advisor

| December 20, 2008

Directs Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

President-elect Barack Obama announced in his radio address Saturday 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. 

Watch the video of President-Elect Obama's address

Dr. Holdren is currently 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.  He 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.

"A physicist renown for his work on climate and energy, [John Holdren] has received numerous honors and awards for his contributions, and has been one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change," President-Elect Obama said in announcing Holdren’s appointment. “I look forward to his wise counsel in the years ahead."

Holdren, who holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace engineering and plasma physics from MIT and  Stanford, 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 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 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 U.S.-Russian cooperation to protect nuclear materials from theft, the U.S. program of research on fusion energy, U.S. energy research and development strategy, and international cooperation on energy-technology innovation.  He also served in this period as the U.S. co-chair of a U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-India Cooperation on Energy and Environment, as well as co-chairing a joint U.S.-Russian Academy committee on cooperation to reduce risks from nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

Following receipt of his Ph.D. 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 1972–1973, 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 (1973–1975), Associate Professor (1975–1978), and Professor (1978–1996) of Energy and Resources, as well as Class of 1935 Professor of Energy (1991–1996).  The hundreds of masters-degree and Ph.D. 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 1991–2005, 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 American Association for the Advancement of Science; 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.

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.

In 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 all." 

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.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Harvard Kennedy School's John P. Holdren Named Obama's Science Advisor.” Press Release, December 20, 2008.

The Authors