White House S&T Adviser John Holdren Details Obama’s Success—and Looming Challenges

Budget and political pressures will create significant threats to important U.S. science initiatives ranging from basic defense research and energy development to education, White House science and technology adviser John P. Holdren said Thursday.

In the keynote address at the 2011 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, Holdren detailed President Barack Obama’s plan to press for increased research and development funding in 2012, saying it is essential to creating jobs and building long-term economic strength.

But, he said, “an enormous challenge… will be sustaining support for science and technology in a regime of overall budget cuts.”

Watch video highlights of the keynote address by John P. Holdren, the White House science and technology adviser, at the 2011 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Holdren’s 45-minute address ranged broadly: Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is, in Obama’s view, “the single most important thing we can do for the future of our country.” He credited Japanese leaders with an “extraordinarily good” level of transparency as they battle their nation’s nuclear power catastrophe. And he announced a new deadline for the White House initiative to bring detailed draft guidelines on scientific integrity to the executive branch of the federal government.

More broadly, Holdren outlined science-related accomplishments during the first 27 months of Obama’s presidency and ambitions for the months ahead. But his talk also included a frank acknowledgement that budget constraints and political opposition will create tough going in many sectors of the federal science and technology enterprise for the foreseeable future.

The 36th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy convened in Washington, D.C., with some 475 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business attending to hear top policy experts talk on critical issues. The Forum’s two-day program, organized by the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, this year has a strong focus on U.S. innovation and the federal investment in science and technology.

Holdren is the assistant to the president for science and technology, 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. Before taking those posts in 2009, he had established a reputation as one of the nation’s most influential scholars on climate, energy, and nuclear non-proliferation efforts. He served as AAAS president in 2007 and as chairman in 2008.

Current AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, in setting the context for Holdren’s talk, noted how science and technology are transforming the culture of developed nations and helping to drive recent uprisings in the Middle East. “The United States has been a global leader in science and technology, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship,” Fedoroff said. “But the world is changing. Will we continue to be leaders? That’s what’s at stake right now.”

In his talk, Holdren answered that Obama is committed to maintaining U.S. leadership in an increasingly competitive world. In the president’s view, he said, “science and technology are not just germane to success with these challenges—they are central to success.”

The budget, he suggested, is a roadmap to the president’s priorities.

The final continuing appropriations act for the 2011 fiscal year budget, passed by Congress and signed by Obama last month, required significant compromises and many programs suffered deep cuts. But Holdren noted that a number of science-related agencies fared relatively well, sustaining only mild losses or holding their ground.

A key exception, he said, was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where budget reductions threaten the launch of planned polar-orbiting satellites that are “crucial” to weather forecast and climate monitoring. He noted that data from other early-warning satellites may have saved many lives during the recent spawn of tornadoes across America’s South and Southeast regions.

“We’ve got to find a way to make up that shortfall or we will have, going forward, a very significant gap in our weather-forecasting capabilities,” he said.

Obama’s proposed 2012 budget proposes significant increases for NOAA and many other R&D programs. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—all focused on basic research—would be back on track to have their budgets doubled over a 10-year period. The overall budget for basic and applied research would rise $6.9 billion, or 11%, to $66.1 billion.

“You can see from the figures that the president remains committed to robust growth in the key dimensions of science and technology,” he said.

The commitment to investment—and the challenges posed by budget pressures—is evident in other areas as well:

Education: The administration’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative, launched in 2009, now has $700 million in private and philanthropic support for partnerships to improve science-related education. The 2010 “Change the Equation” addition to that initiative, focused on K-12 education, has enrolled 100 CEOs to contribute their insight in partnership with universities, national laboratories, and schools.

“The president has repeatedly said that the single most important thing we can do for the future of our country is to lift our game in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, from pre-school to grad school,” Holdren said.

But later in his talk, he predicted that efforts to address “systemic weakness” in U.S. education—including substandard teaching and “inertia” in adopting more effective college teaching methods—will be challenged in budget conflicts ahead.

Energy and Climate: While the administration has won strong advances in controlling tailpipe emissions and funding advanced energy research, it fell short of winning a comprehensive climate and energy bill.

“Until we get it, we’re going to do all we can with the authorities that we already have,” he said. “At the same time, we are working with the new Congress on initiatives to accelerate the transition to cleaner and more efficient energy options that will bring us multiple benefits—economic, environmental, and security. You don’t have to make the case for new and better energy options solely on the basis of climate change, and we’re not doing that.”

Obama is proposing significant 2012 increases for climate change initiatives. But, said Holdren, the proposal “obviously is going to come under fire from those in Congress who don’t believe climate change is a problem.”

International cooperation: Holdren outlined a range of projects where Obama has supported science and technology as a basis for cooperation among nations, from specific engagement with major science powers to the appointment of science envoys to travel the globe to discuss joint science work.

More specifically, he cited the close involvement of administration science officials in consulting with and assisting Japanese leaders who are trying to control the nuclear catastrophe that resulted from the nation’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The level of transparency by Japanese officials has been “extraordinarily good,” according to Holdren. “Naturally, it’s such a complicated event that there have been moments when we thought we might not have been hearing everything from the Japanese that they knew. But we’ve had representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission placed with the Japanese team managing the situation from very early in the game. We have gotten extraordinarily detailed reports daily, in fact multiple times daily.”

Again, however, when budgets are tight, “international cooperation comes under scrutiny,” Holdren said, “again, because many members of Congress do not believe international cooperation in science and technology benefit the United States. We do believe that our very strategically focused efforts in international cooperation are of great benefit to the United States as well as to the world.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff thanks John P. Holdren, the White House science and technology adviser, after his keynote address 5 May at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff thanks John P. Holdren, the White House science and technology adviser, after his keynote address 5 May at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

“We plan to defend this, but you can expect some arguments.”

A related argument has already emerged: In the 2011 budget resolution, Congress banned scientific interaction with China. In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Holdren said the administration would follow that instruction—unless it interferes with the president’s constitutional power to conduct foreign policy.

Republican advocates of that measure were incensed, but in response to a question at the AAAS Forum, Holdren reiterated that position. “Some of the things we’re doing with China, we believe if we curtail them that would infringe on those constitutional prerogatives of the president,” he explained. “So we will be in continuing discussion with the Congress and the legal authorities in the executive branch.”

Integrity: In 2009, Obama issued a memo laying out principles of scientific integrity for his administration that were intended to prevent the manipulation of data, conflicts of interest, and political meddling in federal research. Departments and agencies were to produce guidelines that could then be implemented, but that process has gone far more slowly than expected.

However, Holdren announced that the agencies had met a deadline set in December to submit plans or progress reports on their guidelines; yesterday, they were given 90 days to submit draft policies for White House review.

The call, he said, underscores “the importance of scientific integrity across-the-board in ensuring the highest levels of use of peer-reviewed science, openness, [and] transparency.”

View John P. Holdren’s presentation slides.

Read more coverage from the Forum.