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

Spotlight on John P. Holdren

| Fall/Winter 2016-2017

Restoring Science to its Rightful Place

When he became president, Barack Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” The man he chose to lead that effort was John P. Holdren. Eight years, later, Dr. Holdren is still by the president’s side—the longest-serving White House science advisor since World War II.

As assistant to the president for science and technology, director of the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Holdren has worked closely with Obama to reinvigorate America’s scientific capabilities on a range of policy fronts, from climate change and renewable energy to health care and nanotechnology.

Holdren, whom President Obama called “one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change,” worked closely with John Podesta and former Energy Technology Innovation Policy Project Director Kelly Sims Gallagher to forge a historic agreement with China to limit carbon emissions, which paved the way for the global climate agreement in Paris a year later.

Earlier this summer, Holdren’s office released a list of 100 accomplishments, including:

  • Increased science, technology, and innovation talent in the administration, including three new high-level positions: U.S. Chief Technology Officer; Chief Information Officer; and Chief Data Scientist.
  • Restored scientific integrity, opened up data, and enhanced collaboration with citizens. More than 180,000 federal datasets and collections have been made available to the public on Data.gov.
  • Enacted a historic increase in R&D.
  • Prioritized STEM education, including more than $1 billion in private investment to improve K-12 STEM education.
  • Launched a national network for manufacturing innovation.
  • Expanded entrepreneurship.
  • Drove innovation in health care.
  • Contributed to rapidly declining cost of renewable-energy technologies, and issued new greenhouse gas and fuel-economy standards.
  • Expanded broadband access.
  • Increased capabilities for our journey to Mars.

Holdren is quick to give credit to his boss. “The secret sauce is having a President of the United States, Barack Obama, who is the most science-savvy president we’ve had since Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “That really set the stage and provided oomph for everything we’ve done.”

With over 20 books, 350 publications, and numerous awards (including the MacArthur “genius grant”) in his C.V., Holdren brought to his White House work a deep background in scientific discovery and policy formation, along with a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship. Before being nominated by Obama in 2009, Holdren directed the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program and the Woods Hole Research Center. He also served as a science advisor to President Bill Clinton, and worked at the University of California, Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, and at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

As the administration’s chief authority on climate change, Holdren has been a lightning rod for Republican critics. In one memorable segment that’s been viewed nearly four million times, former “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart delighted in replaying Holdren’s matter-of-fact rebuttals to far-fetched congressional queries.

His office’s PCAST reports have made crucial contributions to our understanding of topics as varied as antibiotic resistance, manufacturing, hearing technologies, and the future of cities. A major PCAST report on forensic science this fall has raised troubling questions about the legitimacy of several high-profile techniques often used in court to secure convictions.

“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 at the time of his nomination.

“It is difficult to overstate the impact of John’s work in academia and government,” said Belfer Center Director Graham Allison. “He knows better than anyone that science and technology are critical drivers both of the 21st century’s most important policy challenges—and of possible solutions. His tireless efforts to renew American leadership in science and technology are rooted in a deep commitment to build a more secure, prosperous, and healthier planet. We salute John’s exemplary service in government and look forward to the unfolding of his next great chapter.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burek, Josh. Spotlight on John P. Holdren.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2016-2017).

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