Speech - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

"Speaking Science to Power" - John Holdren's NAS Public Welfare Medal Acceptance Speech

| May 01, 2022

On May 1, 2022, John Holdren accepted the NAS Public Welfare Medal and delivered an address on the topic of "Speaking Science to Power" at the Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The text of his remarks is below.

Thank you, Marcia, for that kind introduction. Thanks also to the NAS Council for selecting me for this award; to President Obama, who was the best boss a Science Advisor to a President of the United States could have; and, not least, to my wife of 56 years, Dr. Cheryl Holdren, and our extended family, represented here by our niece, Christa Eadie, and her husband, Nick Lewis.

I do have to say it’s a particular pleasure to be presented with the Public Welfare Medal by the first woman to lead the Academy in more than 150 years.

Watch John Holdren deliver his acceptance speech for the 2022 Public Welfare Medal at the NAS Annual Meeting.

The honor of receiving this award is also enhanced for me because so many of the previous awardees of the Public Welfare Medal have been my mentors, colleagues, and friends. Those include Jerry Wiesner, David Hamburg, Gilbert White, Shirley Malcolm, Bill Foege, Norm Neureiter, Neal Lane, Jane Lubchenco, and last year’s awardee, Tony Fauci. I learned from all of them.

Though I never met him, I also learned from the 1945 awardee, Vannevar Bush, As the head of the Office of Scientific Research & Development in FDR’s White House, Bush was the first full-time science advisor to a President of the United States. His 1945 report, "Science: The Endless Frontier," was, famously, the blueprint for creating a comprehensive U.S. federal science policy after WWII.

I think it’s no accident that all these individuals, and I think most if not all of the other Public Welfare Medalists, were people who engaged extensively in speaking science to power.

Of course, what all scientists do—expanding understanding of the universe, our world, our society, and ourselves—is a contribution to public welfare in the broadest and perhaps most important sense.

But the Academy’s Public Welfare Medal has been focused on the additional engagement with public welfare associated with getting down and dirty in the work of applying science to the public good, which includes speaking science to power and speaking science to the public.

Not least because I am writing a book on my own experiences in advising government officials about science and technology, tentatively entitled "Speaking Science to Power," that’s what I will mainly be talking about today.

And let me hasten to say that I mean “science” broadly here, to include the natural and social sciences, both fundamental and applied, together with engineering and medicine, as has been reflected in the awardees of this Academy’s Public Welfare Medal over the years.

Importantly, the opportunities to speak science to power, and, to an even greater extent, the opportunities to speak science to the public, are not by any means restricted to those who make such activities the dominant focus of their work.

Actually, the interdependence of science and society is so important and so multifaceted that I wish everybody who does science would see it as a responsibility to spend at least of bit of their time engaging with government officials or the wider public to build understanding of how science works, what society needs from science, and what science needs from society.

The vehicles for this kind of engagement range from op-eds and letters to the editor, to lectures for school kids and service organizations, to testimony before legislatures, to service on panels and boards of policy-active professional societies and on advisory bodies such as the National Science Board, the Defense Science Board, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The need for those in power to hear from scientists was, of course, the reason this Academy was established in 1863, and meeting that need remains a major function of the NAS and its sister academies of engineering and medicine today.

My first opportunity to speak science directly to power at a high level was in 1970, as a member of the NAS Committee on International Environmental Programs. That committee was formed to advise Secretary of State William Rogers and his staff as they formulated the U.S. stance for the 1972 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Stockholm.

I ended up on the committee, at age 26, through the intervention of the great geochemist and international scientific statesman Harrison Brown, who was then the Foreign Secretary of this

I had admired Harrison’s ideas about the challenges at the intersection of science and society since reading his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future, when I was a junior in high school in 1959. Indeed, that book, together with C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures changed my thinking then and there about what I wanted ultimately to do with my life.

When I ended up sitting next to Harrison Brown in a small, private meeting on environmental issues a decade later, the result was his offering me a job working with him at Caltech on issues of population, resources, and environment.

After a couple of years doing plasma physics at the Livermore Lab, I did join Harrison at Caltech. He became one of my two most important mentors in making the transition to a career at the intersection of science, technology, and public policy.

The other of those two key mentors was Stanford evolutionary biologist Paul Ehrlich, with whom I had started to work on population and environment in 1968, and who had dispatched me to the meeting where I met Harrison Brown.

Harrison passed away in 1986, but Paul soldiers on and will celebrate his 90th birthday later this month. I’m sorry he was not able to attend this year’s Annual Meeting.

Harrison, in addition to first connecting me to the activities of the NAS, he was my entrée to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which from 1973 to 1997 provided me with extraordinary opportunities to engage in international interactions on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation and on energy and environment.

It was at the 1973 Pugwash Conference in Aulanko, Finland, that I met George Kistiakowsky, who like so many of my mentors was a member of this Academy. Kisty had served as the Science Advisor to President Eisenhower in the last year of Eisenhower’s term, and he was the first to put into my head the idea that one of the highest aspirations in a career in science and public policy—alongside being president of this Academy, of course—might be to serve a U.S. president as Science Advisor.

But let me return for a moment to my introduction in 1970, as the most junior member of the Academy’s International Environmental Programs Committee, to the work of speaking science to power.

That group’s more senior participants included storied NAS members Gilbert White, Roger Revelle, Reds Wolman, and Tom Malone. I learned a lot from all of them during that committee’s run from 1970 to 1975, and in the years to come.

As generally happens, service on one NAS committee led to service on many more, and the resulting connections with leaders in the science and engineering communities and in the government played a huge role in my career at the science and policy interface.

Now, when I’m asked by young scientists, engineers, and physicians for advice about finding their way to roles speaking science to power, I tell them to miss no opportunity to meet, work with, and learn from senior people who have succeeded at it. Good fortune in that respect is certainly what worked for me.

And I tell those who ask that there’s no better way to make those connections than to get onto a committee at the academies of science, engineering, and medicine.

Such opportunities have only expanded since I started on this path half a century ago. As of last week, when Ken Fulton and his team were kind enough to dig out the numbers for me, the combined academies had 548 committees and boards in operation, engaging 7,604 volunteer

This Academy machine is a powerful force, not only for developing and propagating insights at the science and society interface but also for ensuring a continuing supply of scientists skilled at doing that.

I want to turn now to a few thoughts about what we should be saying when we have chances to speak science to power…or to the public.

First of all, waxing eloquent about the joy of doing science is probably not the best place to start, even if, for many of us, that may be the first reason we do it. Unfortunately, stressing this point plays into the critique that scientists just want to be sure society keeps paying them to have their fun.

Instead, I think all of us need to get better at talking about why science matters for everybody—why it matters for the economy, for good governance, for public health, for national security, for disaster preparedness and response, and for an environment and a climate we and our descendants can live with.

We also need to emphasize that fundamental research is valuable not just because it expands the horizons of human understanding, but because, as President Obama said when he addressed this Academy in 2009, it’s the seed corn from which future applied science, with all of its tangible benefits, will grow.

And we need to remind decision makers, perhaps above all the U.S. Congress, that social science is part of science, and an important part. This reality is reflected in the 1950 statute that created the National Science Foundation; it’s reflected in the structure of our Academy; and it’s reflected in the structure of the increasingly interdisciplinary teams—across this country and around the world—that are tackling the biggest challenges at the intersection of science and society, including pandemic response, climate change, and limiting the dangers from nuclear weapons.

Attempts by some members of Congress to eliminate or drastically scale back the funding of social science at NSF was one of the more dismaying examples of legislative perversity with which I had to deal when I was in the White House.

Likewise dismaying was and is the conviction of many in the Congress that international collaboration in science is some combination of paid foreign vacations for scientists and a siphon through which U.S. science assets and defense and industrial secrets are transferred to our competitors and adversaries.

We scientists need to be more energetic in pointing out that science talent is global; that this reality and the global character of many of the challenges themselves mean that collaboration is a necessity, not a favor the United States does for others; and that the risks to our country from properly chosen and managed collaborative activities are modest compared to the benefits.

Yet another misconception in the minds of all too many policy makers is that any scientific effort that fails is deplorable and reflects badly on the scientists involved and on the funders.

We need to explain more emphatically that any suitably ambitious research or innovation portfolio is going to entail some failures, and that demonizing these and restricting funding to sure things is a prescription for confining science to incremental advances, giving up on the game-changing breakthroughs that high-risk, high-return research can bring.

Silicon Valley’s motto of “fail early and often” is not a bad guide for the most ambitious components of society’s research and innovation efforts.

The final point I will make this afternoon on what we scientists need to be saying to power—and to the public—is that our country needs to be more generous and more innovative in strengthening STEM education.

President Obama liked to say that STEM education should be a project that extends from preschool, to grad school, to worker training, to lifelong learning. And he liked to point out that we need to lift our game in STEM education for three good reasons:

  • not only to inspire and train new generations of Nobel Prize winners, National Academy members, and high-tech innovators to build our economy, improve our health, protect our environment, and strengthen our defense;
  • but also, to train the tech-savvy workers that the jobs of the 21st century require;
  • and, not least, to educate the science-savvy citizenry on which our democracy increasingly depends in an era when more and more of the decisions facing our elected leaders hinge on insights from science and technology.

With respect to a science-savvy citizenry, what’s most important is not trying to cram our students and audiences with ever more scientific findings, but, rather, to give them a better sense of why science matters and how it works. That means talking about all the ways that the advance of science has improved people’s lives; it means talking about the cumulative and self-correcting character of science, and about the bases for judging the credibility of assertions about what science says (that is, for example, why a report of a National Academies committee report is a better guide to understanding and action than somebody’s tweet or Facebook page).

It also means talking about the nature of uncertainty, including that the inevitable presence of uncertainties doesn’t mean we don’t know anything; and that uncertainties are usually (but not always) symmetric, meaning that when we learn more, our best estimate of the magnitude in question is as likely to go up as to go down.

Too many people seem to believe, for example, that uncertainties about some of the details of
climate change mean we are overestimating the danger, when, in reality, we are at least as likely to be underestimating it.

To conclude about STEM education, scientists need to speak to power and to the public about the critical need to enhance diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, inspiring more women and minorities to go into STEM and providing them with the tools and opportunities to succeed there.

As President Obama was fond of saying, “You can’t win the game with half the team on the

We worked hard on diversity and inclusion in STEM in his Administration, including through the $2 billion Educate to Innovate Initiative. It brought practicing female, African American, and Hispanic scientists and engineers from companies, national labs, and universities into K-12 classrooms to infuse kids with the belief that rewarding careers in STEM fields are open to people who look like them.

I am proud that our Academy is flying the flag on this important issue, having just elected to a second term as our President the immensely capable scientist, leader, and role model, Marcia McNutt.

Thank you for your attention.

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The Author

John P. Holdren