Holdren Dissects Near- and Long-Term Energy Challenges at AAAS Forum on S&T Policy

The administration of President Barack Obama believes that energy will likely be “the biggest science- and technology-related challenge of the new century,” White House science adviser John P. Holdren said at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

In a keynote address that opened the Forum, Holdren explored a range of other issues—U.S. budget deficits and their impact on federal research and development investments; science-related education and other elements of the nation’s innovation culture; and the science behind the White House decision to abandon the NASA Constellation program for returning human explorers to the moon.

The former AAAS president said that many of the grand challenges facing the United States and the world—from economic growth and climate change to national security—are interconnected, and that energy is a nexus where they come together.

“The essence of it is simple,” Holdren told the Forum audience. “Without energy, there’s no economy. Without climate, there’s no environment. Without economy and environment, there’s no well-being, no civil society, no personal or national security. The problem is that the world is getting most of the energy its economies need—over 80% in fact, and the United States over 85%—in ways that are wrecking the climate that the environment needs.”

The AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy celebrated its 35th year with an event that attracted over 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business to Washington, D.C., on 13-14 May. They heard top policy experts talk on range of critical issues, including the global economic outlook for science research and development; the challenge of managing research universities in times of economic turmoil; building a stronger culture of innovation; science and technology in national security; and the impact of science and technology on society.

The Forum was organized by the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

John P. Holdren

Holdren is director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. During a long and distinguished career in research and policy, he has established his influence on a broad range of high-profile S&T issues. He served as AAAS president in 2007 and as chairman of the association’s Board of Directors in 2008.

In his 13 May address to the Forum, he listed a number of areas where the Obama administration had demonstrated its strong commitment to the role of science and technology in addressing national and global challenges.

The president understands science and technology recognized their importance in solving a range of pressing challenges, Holdren said. Obama has hired a team of top scientists and engineers to help guide U.S. S&T initiatives, and he is pressing to increase federal research and development investments that are crucial to future economic strength.

Energy and climate change are among the nation’s most high-profile issues, and many analysts have suggested that conflicting political and economic blocs will make it difficult to get ambitious measures through Congress. But, said Holdren: “President Obama has by no means abandoned the pursuit of comprehensive energy and climate legislation in the Congress.”

Meanwhile, the administration is advancing a number of energy innovation efforts. For example, Holdren cited the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, a new agency established to pursue paradigm-shifting research.

Another proposed initiative—known as RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge)—would create energy education and research opportunities for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And it would use movies, cyber-learning, social networks, and other media to reach out to young people.

The White House views energy conservation and innovation as important in addressing climate change, Holdren said.

He said that the United States must do more to harvest the “low-hanging fruit” of improved efficiency. Already, the administration has set combined fuel economy/carbon dioxide tailpipe standards for cars and light trucks. Other efficiency can be achieved through improvements that can be made around the home without huge investments—recycling, insulation, and improved household appliances and electronics.

The nation also should be looking to benefits that can be gained by investment in infrastructure—broadband, energy, transportation, and education, Holdren said. And in climate science, he added, it must work toward better monitoring and modeling of the climate and better assessment of regional climate change effects.

Further, the science community must find a more effective way to communicate with the public and policymakers on energy and climate, Holdren said. “Anyone who’s paying attention knows the science community needs to do a lot better at that.”

While energy and climate change are critical challenges, the White House sees them as opportunities, Holdren suggested. “This is not energy and climate policy versus the economy,” he said. “It’s energy and climate policy for the economy. The costs of action are likely to be far smaller than the cost of inaction.

“We can get many things done at once that we need to do. We can reduce costly and risky oil imports and dangerous air pollution with the same measures, in large degree, that we employ to reduce climate-damaging emissions. And the surge of innovation that we need in clean energy technology and energy efficiency is going to create new business and new jobs and help drive economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness.”

On other issues:

Budget deficits: In response to a question from AAAS President Alice S. Huang, Holdren said that Obama is responding to budget deficits by freezing non-defense federal discretionary spending for three years. Any funding for new programs must come from other programs “that aren’t successful, or not successful enough.”

Education: In Obama’s view, “the single most important thing we can do to improve the prospects of our country in this century is to lift the level of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education,” Holdren said.

He cited two “immensely important” elements of that push: upgrading the quality of school laboratories and hiring or training teachers who know how to use those facilities and who can draw practicing scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to the classroom.

The administration is also working with computer manufacturers, game developers, and even the National Basketball Association on games that can effectively teach such issues as nutrition or the mathematics and physics of basketball, he said.

Space Exploration: In an analysis of the White House’s proposed 2011 budget, the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program reported that Obama wants to end NASA’s Constellation program, which had targeted a return to the moon by 2020. The budget plan would save $3.1 billion by ending the return-to-the-moon mission and retiring the space shuttle. But it would increase overall NASA R&D funding by $1.7 billion, or 18.3%. Obama would invest $6.1 billion over five years to transition regular near-Earth orbit missions to private industry; increase funding by $812 million, or 35.1% over three years, for the International Space Station; and invest $559 million in “heavy-lift” and propulsion systems, including research into new engines, new propellants, and advanced combustion processes.

That shift has drawn criticism in Congress and from some sectors of the public—and recently from Neil Armstrong, who became the first man on the moon in 1969, and Eugene Cernan, who in 1972 was the last man on the moon.

In response to a question from the audience, Holdren strongly defended the administration’s decision, both on scientific and budgetary grounds.

After a close look at Constellation, he said, the White House concluded that, “notwithstanding its rapidly escalating cost, to three and four times the original estimate, it was still not going to able to land U.S. astronauts on the surface of the moon until 2030 or later.

“To get them to the moon by 2025 would cost an extra $60 billion over the next 10 years,” he said. “The president and his advisers, including me, made the decision that there are other destinations in deep space—destinations beyond low-earth orbit, that will allow us to do more science sooner, with more missions, more visits, more exciting discoveries—than going back to the moon 50 years later.

“It’s not real surprising that the American heroes who were the first people to set foot on the moon might think the most exciting thing we could do now is to go back there. But not everybody agrees with them. In fact, the second person to set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, is a strong supporter of the president’s program. And a large array of other astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, and John Grunsfeld, the Hubble [space telescope] repairman, who had five missions and 60 hours of spacewalking…all are strong supporters of the president’s program.”

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill: In response to another question from the audience, Holdren said the Obama administration is working with oil companies, and with experts from the U.S. national laboratories and the academic community, in an urgent effort to cap the leak or capture the oil.

The leak is the result of an explosion that sank British Petroleum’s rig on 22 April. The disaster left 11 crew members dead and tens of thousands of barrels of oil floating in the Gulf; it could cost the Gulf Coast states economy billions of dollars and uncounted jobs.

Holdren said the spill poses an “immense challenge.” Despite near-continual efforts, engineers haven’t found a way control the leak. Oil and natural gas—no one is sure how much—have continued to gush from the Gulf floor more than 4000 feet below the water’s surface. Holdren attributed that uncertainty to a variety of factors: the depth of the leak, the darkness of the waters there, and the lack of uniformity of the oil plume, among others.

“We really do not know whether its 5000 barrels a day, or 10,000, or 2000,” he said. “The one thing we do know is that it could be more if it gets worse down there. The maximum flow rate is considerably higher. So it’s very important to get this thing plugged, rather than allowing it to make itself worse or to make a misstep in our effort to plug it that actually causes it to get worse.

“The federal government is working with all of the oil companies—they realize it is now all of their problem,” said Holdren. “They are struggling with this very energetically.”


View video of White House science adviser John P. Holdren discussing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Obama administration’s space policy.

See more news from the 2010 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum.

Learn more about the program and speakers at this year’s Forum.