AAAS S&T Forum Keynote Address: Obama's Science Advisor Urges U.S. Climate Policy Leadership Worldwide


John P. Holdren

America must become "a leader in the world" and "not a laggard" in addressing global climate change, U.S. science advisor John P. Holdren said 30 April during the 34th Annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that "the voices of the climate science community are being heard." He noted, however, that "the biggest challenge is the policy challenge."

He offered his remarks as climate scientists are preparing for a major international conference in Copenhagen from 6-18 December. In remarks to reporters after his talk, Holdren said the United States could strongly enhance its position at global climate negotiations in Copenhagen later this year if it approves climate and energy legislation in advance. But in response to a question, he acknowledged that the outcome is uncertain.

"Without energy there is no economy; without climate, there is no environment; and without economy and environment, there's no well-being," Holdren said during his keynote address. "So we had better figure out how to get this right."

The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy is regarded as the premier event of its kind in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. The 34th annual Forum, held just a few blocks from the White House, attracted nearly 600 policymakers from government, education, industry, and other fields, plus more than two dozen journalists.

Holdren served as president of AAAS from February 2006 to February 2007, and as chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors for a year after that.

In his address to the Forum, Holdren said that Obama likely will want to focus on ramping up the rate of R&D and demonstration of renewable-energy technologies as well as how best to increase energy efficiency of buildings, cars, manufacturing processes, and more.

"I think you'll see a multi-phased set of impacts," Holdren explained, "where the largest impacts in the short term will come from efforts to improve end-use efficiency—more efficient buildings, more efficient cars, more efficient manufacturing processes, and so on, and you'll see the alternative energy supplies coming in somewhat more slowly, but ultimately growing to a very large level."

Attention also must be paid to conventional energy sources such as safer, next-generation nuclear energy, he added. "We are still living in a world that's about 80% dependent on fossil fuels; [in] the United States, more than 85% dependent," Holdren said. "That's not going to change overnight, so we can't just say [that] we're going to go immediately, all the way, to unconventional renewables. We have no way to do that. We have to fix in various ways the conventional options that we're using, as well."

Fulfilling Obama's ambitious goals for science and technology "is going to be hard" in the current economy, and it will require close cooperation between the administration and Congress, Holdren remarked.

Obama earlier this week pledged to invest 3% of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) in research and development, up from 2.66% today. The president's goal, Holdren said, was to "surpass the level that [such investment] had reached at the height of the space race in 1964, when it was about 2.9% of the country's GDP."

But Holdren contended that Obama's obvious passion for scientific discovery is likely to benefit his agenda. "Our biggest asset going forward and getting this right is the president's degree of enthusiasm and engagement with and about science and technology," said Holdren, who also serves as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

As an example of Obama's excitement about science, Holdren shared a recent photograph of the president speaking with astronauts on the international space station. When advised during a briefing that middle-school students had been invited to witness the call, the president "jumped up and said, 'Then let's go!'"

"This is a president who just lights up when the subject is science and technology," Holdren said. "He lights up with increased wattage when the subject is teaching kids and engaging with kids about science and technology. This, above all else is why we're going to get it done."

Holdren said that he and the president remain committed to working cooperatively with members of Congress such as Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, who also spoke Thursday at the S&T Forum.

In describing the primary science and technology challenges and focuses for the OSTP, Holdren expounded upon an editorial appearing in the 1 May edition of Science, identifying five "applied challenges" and five foundations for success."

According to Holdren, applied challenges for the Obama administration will include leveraging science and technology for economic recovery and growth; advancing public health; driving the energy-technology innovation needed to reduce energy imports and climate-change risks while creating green jobs and new businesses; addressing other environmental challenges, from species loss to degradation of natural resources; and supporting homeland security.

Foundations for S&T success under the new U.S. administration, Holdren said, will include increasing the capacities and output of fundamental research institutions; improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM), from pre-school to graduate school; improving and protecting information, communication and transportation infrastructures; maintaining cutting-edge capabilities in space; and supporting appropriate guidelines related to such issues as scientific integrity, efficient processing of visa applications from international researchers, international research cooperation, and more.

As a "down payment" toward the president's goal to invest 3% of the nation's GDP to advance science, Holdren said, support for science and technology within the president's economic stimulus package and the 2009 and 2010 federal budgets "already represents the largest single increase in support for science and engineering in the history of the country." The president's budget calls for large increases for the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy science office, the National Institute of Science and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and basic research at the Department of Defense, Holdren pointed out.

The Obama science plan includes $1.5 billion in funding over the next five years to enhance STEM education and "get kids back on top," Holdren said, plus $150 billion over the next 10 years to promote clean-energy strategies as part of a response to global climate change. Another $6 billion has been committed toward doubling cancer research, Holdren noted.

In addition, he said, the president pledged the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, to be based on a previous Department of Defense response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in the 1950s. The new ARPA-E initiative would undertake similarly "high-risk, high-reward research," Obama said 27 April in an address at the National Academy of Sciences.

Also in the first 100 days of Obama's presidency, Holdren noted, draft guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research and scientific integrity have been developed. Holdren commented during a question-and-answer period that international scientific cooperation is undergoing a resurgence, too. Already, he said, science leaders from a wide array of nations, including Brazil, France, Australia, and Canada, have paid visits to the new administration.

"Science and technology is clearly back in the United States," Holdren said.

In opening his S&T Forum address, Holdren described his new responsibilities and the role of the OSTP. Specifically, he explained, the U.S. science advisor provides independent, objective advice to the president and the vice president; and he helps to coordinate analysis and recommendations related to S&T policy, in concert with a wide range of relevant agencies. The president's S&T advisor serves as a senior member of the White House staff, and as a Senate-confirmed director of the OSTP, along with four Senate-confirmed associate directors—encompassing science, technology, environment, and national security and international affairs. Holdren also heads up the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with renowned scientists Eric Lander and Harold Varmus.


34th Annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
30 April 2009

Keynote Address:
John P. Holdren
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology;
Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

Excerpts of Dr. Holdren's responses to questions regarding climate policy are documented below, and in a related video segment:

[Regarding the "energy-economy-climate change challenge"]:

"Without energy there is no economy; without climate, there is no environment; and without economy and environment, there's no well-being, so we had better figure out how to get this right."

"I certainly will be advising the president on science and technology related to sustainability—where opportunities are for forms of economic growth that can proceed apace."

[In response to a question by Cris Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, regarding the outlook for advances in alternative energy]:

Holdren said that President Obama likely will focus "both on ramping up the rate of R&D and demonstration of some of these technologies to get them to larger levels," and also "energy efficiency, where increases in energy end-use and efficiency really are the fastest, surest, and cheapest and cleanest leverage we have on the energy issue in the short term."

"So, I think you'll see a multi-phased set of impacts, where the largest impacts in the short term will come from efforts to improve end-use efficiency—more efficient buildings, more efficient cars, more efficient manufacturing processes, and so on, and you'll see the alternative energy supplies coming in somewhat more slowly, but ultimately growing to a very large level."

"We're also going to need to pay attention to some of the conventional sources—nuclear energy, what can we get done there? The advanced fossil fuel technologies that will be capable of capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide are going to be important. We are still living in a world that's about 80% dependent on fossil fuels; the United States, more than 85% dependent. That's not going to change overnight, so we can't just say we're going to go immediately all the way to unconventional renewables. We have no way to do that. We have to fix in various ways the conventional options that we're using as well."

"I think we are going to see some more nuclear power plants in this country. They'll be of a new generation that will be characterized by better safety characteristics; we hope they will be characterized by shorter construction times. We still have a problem in this country that there's no agreed upon approach for managing the radioactive waste in the long run, and clearly the administration's going to be paying some attention to figuring out how we're going to deal with that. If nuclear energy is to make a big dent globally, then we're going to have to be attentive to breaking the linkages between nuclear energy technology and nuclear weapons technology, and I think the administration will be attentive to how we can do that, as well."