Holdren Outlines Ways to ‘Restore Science to Its Rightful Place’

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John Holdren calls on scientists and engineers to explain their research and its implications to policy makers and the public. | Neil Orman/AAAS

The scientific community needs to more effectively speak out about the necessity of evidence-based policies, scientific integrity protections and public access to research to defend the role of science, said John Holdren, former White House science adviser, in a speech on the eve of the April 22nd March for Science.

Holdren walked through the policies and initiatives former President Barack Obama set into motion with his 2009 inaugural pledge to “restore science to its rightful place,” and laid out what is needed to preserve the capacity of science to advance “economic prosperity, public health, environmental sustainability and national security, among other laudable aims.”

Before closing, Holdren took on concerns expressed by some in the scientific community that participation in the March for Science will transform science into “just another interest group,” “politicize science” or render scientists as a "group worried about their jobs.”

In response, Holdren said, scientists are already an interest group, one that happens to be devoted to its interest in scientific inquiry; science is already politicized because federal funding decisions governing research programs take place in a political arena in which Congress, the executive branch and stakeholders from all sides play leading roles; and, finally, scientists are most worried about the results of their work being lost, not their jobs.

“Scientists, who are better positioned than most to appreciate what is at stake in these political decisions, surely have no less a right and responsibility than any other group to ensure their voices are heard in the political process,” he said.

Reviewing multiple challenges now facing science, Holdren used his speech to a standing-room-only crowd at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Washington headquarters to focus on the obligations of scientists and engineers to explain their research and its implications and share their knowledge with policymakers and the public.

“We should get better at explaining science to laypeople, not just what we know and why it matters, but how we know it … and the imprudence of ignoring science,” said Holdren, who served as an assistant to the president for science and technology, a title that afforded him direct access to the president, during both terms of the Obama administration and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the same period. He now holds a dual professorship at Harvard University and serves as a senior adviser to the director at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. He is a former president of AAAS.

Holdren called on scientists and engineers to dedicate 10% of their time educating policymakers and the public on issues such as climate change, protecting the world’s oceans and public lands, continuing Arctic research and demonstrating  the importance of investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs for elementary and middle school students.

To continue scientific research programs, the scientific community will need to forge new alliances and partnerships with state governments, private industry and philanthropic organizations, he added.  

Upholding federal support for STEM education initiatives through incentives and corporate and philanthropic partnerships, for instance, will become more critical to help states and local governments improve their STEM programs.

Eleven federal departments and agencies and 14 House and Senate full committees that make the bulk of the decisions about federal government’s science and technology programs will be important outreach targets for scientists, he suggested, particularly since the current administration has so far displayed little interest in ensuring that science is used to inform federal policies.

The administration has not appointed a White House science adviser or a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, nor has it tapped administrators for NASA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or nominated directors or chief scientists for the Energy Department, U.S. Geological Survey or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Holdren observed. Most of the other federal posts responsible for managing science and technology programs also remain vacant.

Holdren said President Donald Trump “has not given any indication or awareness of the role of science in government, or the role of government in science.”

Obama, he said, elevated the role of science and technology advisers throughout the executive branch, put in place plans to mitigate and prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, set up health research initiatives to tackle such priorities as cancer and brain research, worked with international partners on scientific issues and used the White House as a platform from which to herald science and education, particularly for children.

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, which Congress must approve, would sharply reduce and in some cases eliminate funding for science programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, climate-related science research programs at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and cut in half research and development programs at the Energy Department.

The administration also has signed executive orders, including one seeking to roll back an Obama administration plan to reduce global warming emissions from power plants and taken steps that threaten the United States’ global leadership on climate policy, he said.

“If the United State retreats, globally, its leadership position on climate change, I can assure you that China will only be too happy to wear that mantel of leadership exclusively,” Holdren said.

Throughout his address, Holdren pointed to the benefits science and technology deliver to everything from national security and energy and transportation systems to communications networks and medical advances. “It is also the case that science and technology are one of the characteristics that really make us human, characterize us as humans, the excitement of discovery, the excitement of invention and the determination to improve the human condition by bringing insights from this domain to bear,” he said.

Holdren’s speech framed an array of activities AAAS has organized around the March for Science, including hosting a comedy show after Holdren’s address that went a long way in banishing the idea that scientists are solely serious creatures.

The humor at Stand-Up Comedy for Science often took a cerebral turn – Robert Mac deadpanned that a simple solution to instantly decrease the rising temperatures due to climate change would be converting to the metric system. The comics also poked fun at themselves, as when Kasha Patel riffed on a NASA press release describing the recent Space-X test-rocket explosion as a “non-nominal launch” to lament a recent “non-nominal” date.

Even through sarcasm, every performer’s excitement for the March for Science shone through. Patel described Saturday’s events as “our Super Bowl,” and Adam Ruben gave an impassioned plea to help people understand that science is about more than frazzled-looking men in lab coats performing magic tricks with liquid nitrogen. Ruben admitted that people living around Washington sometimes become jaded toward the seemingly endless succession of marches, protests and political actions, but the applause, laughter and cheers coming from the audience conveyed genuine enthusiasm. 

AAAS is among some 240 scientific and academic organizations that partnered with the March for Science, a non-partisan movement that aims to promote the use of science for the common good, including science education and the use of scientific evidence to inform public policy. The event that grew from social media conversations among scientists into a global movement is now scheduled to unfold in Washington and at least 608 satellite locations around the world.

AAAS plans to host a pre-march rally the morning of the march at its Washington headquarters featuring remarks from AAAS CEO Rush Holt and leaders of five other scientific organizations before those in attendance will head to the festivities on the National Mall.

The organization will feature a teach-in tent on the National Mall with displays and talks on creek critters, how to save native bees and protect forests from beetles. March participants will be able to recharge at AAAS headquarters until 7 p.m. Eastern after the march, or attend a free, special screening of HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” staring Oprah Winfrey beginning at 6:30 p.m. at AAAS headquarters.

Holt is slated to join a diverse group of guest speakers scheduled to address the March for Science crowd on the National Mall.

Samuel Million-Weaver contributed to this report.

[Associated image: Neil Orman/AAAS]