Analysis & Opinions - The Asahi Shimbun

Interview With John Holdren: Trump has No Science Policy to Speak Of

  • Keisuke Katori
| May 23, 2018

More than a year after Donald Trump became U.S. president, science policy in the United States has been effectively gutted.

Trump has pledged huge cuts in federal spending on science and technology as well as eliminated many environmental regulations, including having the United States leave the Paris accords on climate change.

John Holdren served for eight years as science adviser to Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. Holdren is now a Harvard University professor of environmental policy and once served as chair of the executive committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs when it was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for its efforts to reduce the role played by nuclear weapons.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Holdren talked about what the Trump administration has meant for scientists working in the United States and the effects that would have on U.S. policy in the future. (The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Question: It has been about 15 months since you left the administration, but there is still no science adviser to President Trump. What effect has that had?

Holdren: Well, first of all, the president and his other senior advisers, when they're dealing with policy issues where science and technology might play a role, don't know to whom in the administration to direct a question.

And so you have to assume that the policy-making process in the White House is basically deprived of both insights about opportunities that science and technology may present for the economic agenda, the public health agenda, the national security agenda, the energy and climate agenda, the environment agenda.

Secondly, you don't have in place the machinery to oversee the government's own efforts in using science and technology to advance its agenda.

Today, there are perhaps 45 or 50 people there (in the Office of Science and Technology Policy), but there's no leadership.

The result is that the recommendations to the president about science and technology budgets are being made by people who don't have any particular background in science and technology. It showed in the first several budgets that President Trump proposed to Congress.

The third shortcoming is that the president's science adviser, supported by the OSTP, has been responsible basically for being the president's emissary to the wider science and technology relevant communities. There's nobody there now doing that job.

Some of the people who worked with me are still in the OSTP. Occasionally, I talk to them. I talk to some of the people who are still in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). So I have some inside insight.

I would say, first of all, the place with the lowest morale is the EPA. I mean people are really demoralized in the EPA. People are pretty demoralized in the Department of Interior, below the level of a political appointee, below the level of the people who Trump has appointed.

The scientists are continuing to leave.

It's not going to be possible to restore that overnight. Yet even when Trump is gone, it will take a fair amount of time to re-establish these pools of competence in the different departments and agencies that have been hollowed out under Trump.

Q: Why was such hollowing out allowed to take place?

A: Well, it's very hard to tell whether the cause is the fact that the president doesn't believe he needs any advice, or whether it's simply the degree of disarray and chaos that has characterized the administration in its first year or whether it is perhaps that the president may have asked some people to serve in these capacities and they've said no because I would speculate that some of the people he might ask would be concerned that if they took the job, he would not be listening because he has not shown any indication that he listens very much and particularly not to relevant facts from science and technology.

He has so far, for example, rejected the advice of his most senior and experienced Cabinet members when it came to whether or not to remain in the Paris accords on climate change. Now, he was advised by James Mattis, his secretary of defense, to stay in. He was advised by Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, to stay in. He was advised by 600 CEOs of American corporations that it was in the interest of U.S. business that he stay in, and he got out. That sort of outcome would perhaps discourage people who are asked to serve from doing so.

There's the further concern, I think, that a lot of the people who have gone to work for Trump have ended up being tarnished by the experience that he expects complete loyalty. He expects people to lie for him just as he lies himself, and the kind of people who would be competent to serve in OSTP don't want to do that.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with Obama when you served as his science adviser?

A: Assistant to the president for science and technology, that conveys direct access to the president. People who have the title of assistant to the president can get appointments with the president when they want them. They can get a memo to the president when they want to send the president a memo. The president calls on them directly for advice and counsel.

I probably saw him an average of twice a week. Some weeks, I saw him five or six times.

He was extremely interested in science and technology and how they could contribute to advancing his agenda on really all the major issues that a president is concerned with: the economy, public health, national security, homeland security, environment, conservation and protection of the oceans, the Arctic.

The initiative on precision medicine, the initiatives on combating antibiotic resistance, the initiative on strategic computing. In all of those cases, the president embraced the advice he was given. The advice we gave him on energy technology innovation, and ways to address climate change, he took and embedded in the climate action plan and in his stance going into the Paris Conference and the parties.

It was a wonderful interaction. It was a wonderful experience I had for eight years working for a president who understood how and why science and technology matter and was prepared to take action on science and technology in constructive ways.

Q: Can you think of any examples where you believe it would have been more beneficial if Trump did have a science adviser?

A: Well, to give you some examples, in the course of the back and forth about North Korea, President Trump made the statement that the United States had the capacity to shoot down 97 percent of intercontinental ballistic missiles that might come toward the United States. It's a good idea that the president should understand that we would be fortunate to shoot down, let us say, 50 percent of the missiles coming our way.

With respect to climate change, where the president and most of his Cabinet members have indicated that maybe the climate is changing in some way, but it's not clear what humans have to do with it. It's not clear whether it's good for us or bad for us. If he had a capable science adviser, he would know that that is not the case.

There is going to be roughly a $35 trillion or $40 trillion (about 3,800 trillion to 4,300 trillion yen) market in clean and efficient energy technologies between now and 2040. If the United States fails to make investments in developing advanced technologies in these fields, we will basically concede the leadership to China, to Japan, to Europe. They will divide up that $40 trillion pie among them, and the United States will be buying all those technologies from other countries.

Q: How do you view the rapid progress being made by China as the Trump administration applies the brakes to research and development?

A: China has made enormous progress over the last couple of decades. If you look at the data, comparing say the year 2000 and the year 2015 or 2016, China was far, far behind the United States in investments in research and development in 2000. Far behind the United States in patent applications. Far behind the United States in publications in science and engineering journals.

By 2015, they had drastically closed that gap, just as they had drastically closed the economic gap. While they're still not spending quite as much money on research and development as the United States, they will pretty soon pass us.

I was a guest professor at Tsinghua University in the two years before I joined the Obama administration. The vehicle technology laboratory, the biotech laboratories, the information-tech building, the nanotech laboratories. What I found was that if a person, a knowledgeable person was to be parachuted blindfolded into those facilities, that person would not know that he wasn't at MIT or Stanford or Berkeley. The quality of the facilities, talking with the students, the caliber of the students, was first class.

Q: How should the United States deal with a China that has become a major power and even a superpower?

A: First of all, I think China is both a cooperative partner and a competitor. We have, in the past, successfully navigated the tensions that sometimes occur in those kinds of relationships.

The trouble with President Trump's approach is he appears to consider these relationships to be what we call zero-sum games. If one side wins, the other side loses. He doesn't seem to grasp the concept of what we call win-win situations, where both partners win. I think that is very sad.

There are members of Congress who believe that almost any form of international cooperation is simply a process in which U.S. scientific and technological advantage is sacrificed, it's transferred into the hands of potential competitors and potential adversaries or actual competitors and actual adversaries.

I will tell you a story about a congressional testimony of mine. I was testifying before the Appropriations Committee of Congress that has oversight over my budget, and its chairman, who was opposed to cooperation with China, asked me, "Aren't you worried, Dr. Holdren, about China stealing the defense and industrial secrets of the United States because of this cooperation that you're presiding over?" I said, "Yes, Mr. Chairman, that is a concern, but a bigger concern is that if the United States does not make adequate investments, in 10 or 15 years, we won't have any secrets that the Chinese find it worthwhile to steal."

We have been very careful to cooperate in domains when it's in the mutual interest of both countries to cooperate in order to share costs and risks, in order to make progress on issues that are basically international public goods, like combating infectious diseases, like increasing nuclear reactor safety, like understanding and combating climate change.

During the Obama Administration, we created a bilateral commission, a group called the U.S.-China Dialogue on Innovation Policy. We addressed some of the complaints on the U.S. side about Chinese discriminatory policies and some of the complaints on the Chinese side about U.S. discriminatory policies. We had some considerable success.

Now I think the stance has changed to a much more confrontational one, we're looking at tariffs being imposed and punitive measures and the danger of a very real escalating war of tariffs and punitive measures in both directions between China and the United States. I think that will do nobody any good.

Q: Trump may be a prime example, but there is increasing distrust among the public of experts, including scientists. That has also emerged in Japan, especially after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. What are your thoughts on that?

A: People have had reason to mistrust what scientists and engineers say on particular issues from time to time. It goes way back. The engineers who designed and built the Titanic said it was unsinkable. When the Titanic sank, there was a loss of faith in the expertise of naval engineers and naval architects. When certain approaches to managing radioactive waste proved to be inadequate and there were leaks from various places where radioactive waste were stored, then there was a loss of faith in the nuclear engineers who were saying, "This was OK."

There are many kinds of expertise in which most of the public still have confidence. It is worrisome that maybe the fraction of the public that has lost confidence in expertise more broadly has been growing, and certainly President Trump has encouraged that with his own indifference to expertise. I think that's dangerous. It's a bad thing. But I'm not sure how long it will last after Trump is gone.

Q: With science now in a difficult time, how should scientists act?

A: One, scientists should not get discouraged. They should keep doing their work, and if by chance they lose their government funding, then they should look for other sources of funding from foundations, from the business community, from the international community, but don't get discouraged and don't quit.

The second thing scientists should do is keep talking. I think there's a bit of a problem in the way we teach science, certainly in the United States at the kindergarten through 12th-grade level, as we teach our kids a lot of facts or we try to. We don't teach them very much about what science actually is or how it works, and so they grow up not really knowing what the sources or credibility are in science.

We have to do a better job in talking about what science is, but scientists talking to the public have to do a better job at talking again, about how they know what they know, why they believe what they believe, what's true beyond reasonable doubt, what is probably true, but we don't have adequate evidence yet, what could conceivably be true, but we have even less evidence so far, what is not true beyond a reasonable doubt.

Scientists in whatever field need to get better at explaining to policy makers and voters certainly, but also kids who ultimately will be voters and will affect policy.

I have often argued that scientists and engineers should actually devote 10 percent of their time to public education and to engagement with policy, to help this process along so that the public is able to become more engaged.

Q: But what do you say to those who say scientists should not become involved in politics?

A: Well, we had the March for Science, and a lot of people said, "This is not good." Particularly some scientists said, "No, we'll politicize science. You shouldn't do this. You should keep science and politics separate." I do not agree with that at all.

Science is already politicized. The decisions in most countries about how much money to spend on science and how to allocate it are made in a political process.

To say that scientists will look like just another interest group if they march, my answer to that is yes, scientists are an interest group. They're interested in advancing knowledge and seeing it applied to improving the human condition. That's an interest that people should be proud of. Scientists can be proud of that interest, not ashamed of it. If they're the only group that silence themselves in the political arena on the grounds that it's bad to mix science and politics, then politics will be the poorer for it.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Katori, Keisuke.“Interview With John Holdren: Trump has No Science Policy to Speak Of.” The Asahi Shimbun, May 23, 2018.

The Author


John P. Holdren