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John Holdren

April 8, 2009 This article courtesy of Nature News.

President Obama's science adviser talks about his new job.

John Holdren, formerly at Harvard University, was confirmed as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy on 19 March. A long-time expert on nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, energy and climate change, Holdren is now President Barack Obama's point person on science and technology as it affects federal and international policies. Nature reporter Jeff Tollefson talked to Holdren Wednesday morning in his office. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What are your top priorities for your first year in the job?

Clearly initiatives related to science and technology as they affect economic recovery, job creation, growth and competiveness have to have high priority, given the circumstances. What do we do to get money usefully out the door in the science and technology domain in the short term, and what are the investments that we have to make so that there is a middle and a long term in which innovation is playing the role that it needs to?

The second big issue, and it's related to the first one, is the energy and climate interaction. How do we need to be thinking about the scientific and technological dimensions of the energy challenge and of climate change? And particularly, again, how can we link those things positively to the economy? The third area is science and technology in the health domain, and the fourth big area is of course a very traditional one: the scientific and technological dimensions of national defence, national security and homeland security, in which this office actually has a surprisingly big role.

Who do you report to on a daily basis and how often do you speak with the president?

I attend the senior staff meetings every morning in the Roosevelt room, chaired by [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel. In that sense, I'm reporting every day in front of the rest of the senior White House staff. We talk about what the president's agenda and priorities for the day are, what all of our offices are doing that matter and what we think the other folks might need to know about.

When I need to see the president, I make a request directly to his scheduler. I don't have to ask anybody's permission to see the president except the president. Some weeks I see him multiple times. Some weeks I don't see him at all. The object of the game, given the premium on his time, is to get as much done below his level as possible and to go to him when you need a decision on something that could not be decided at a lower level.

What are those interactions like?

He is deeply interested in the science itself. This guy is extraordinary in his capacity to absorb and integrate and synthesize complicated information. His questions are extraordinary.

Given that President Obama has appointed a number of 'czars' to handle key policy initiatives, what is your role when it comes to things like energy and climate or health care?

These czars are coordinators — they are not emperors, they are coordinators. So, in fact, Carol Browner's office is called the Office of the Energy and Climate Coordinator. Her job is to bring together all of the relevant expertise needed to formulate advice to the president on energy and climate policy. Carol convenes that group, and she chairs it, but she is drawing on everybody, and we all contribute whatever it is we bring to the table. [Energy Secretary] Steve Chu and I are the two scientists in that group. Steve and I are the ones who bring science and technology to the table.

Some congressional experts say the president has sent 'mixed messages' regarding whether he wants to enact climate legislation this year. Is cap-and-trade legislation a top priority for the very first year?

I'm not aware that the president has sent any mixed signals. The administration's position, the president's position, is that we would like to get both energy and climate legislation this year — if we can. I personally think there is great benefit in getting it all done this year. If we go to Copenhagen without a climate policy in place, the freedom of our negotiators to negotiate anything meaningful is very limited.

I accept that it is going to be a big challenge, but I don't think it's out of the question. This president has demonstrated a willingness and an ability to keep issues together when they need to be together. He has not taken the easy out by saying, 'Well, we've got an economic recession, so that's all we are going to do'. That would have been a temptation to any president, but this president has resisted it and said, 'We don't have the luxury of postponing everything else while we do the economy'.

Eighty-nine senators voted for a budget amendment stipulating that cap-and-trade should not increase gas or electricity prices. If legislation follows that model, and avoids sending any price signal about carbon emissions to consumers, how can it be effective?

I personally don't think that makes a lot of sense. It is economically irrational to exclude large environmental costs from the balance sheets of the producers and the consumers. You are only kidding yourself if you export those costs on to society as a whole. That's the entire economic rationale — any approach to increase the cost of emitting is intended to send a price signal.

So does this tell you that the politics might not have changed as much as people think?

There's a lot of positioning and manoeuvring that goes on early in a discussion like this, and I don't think it's necessarily indicative of where it's going to come out. And when you look at the actual numbers, they are far from devastating. If we had a price of $30 a ton on carbon, which is about $100 per ton on carbon dioxide, the effect on a gallon of gasoline would be about 30 cents. Now, we all know that the price of gasoline goes up and down by more than that in a week for reasons that nobody can explain with both hands above the table.

What interactions do you have or intend to have with your international counterparts, such as John Beddington in the UK?

I have got a phone call with John Beddington at noon today . I have met in the last week with one of the chief science advisors to President [Dmitry] Medvedev [of Russia]. I have met with the state secretary for science and education of Germany in the last week. I have met with the deputy prime minister of Sweden. And I have met with the chief climate change negotiator for India and with the chief climate change negotiator for China.

We have a strong set of international interactions and will continue to have them. Issues of energy, climate change, nuclear arms control and non-proliferation are all big deals. These are problems that we have to get right globally, not just nationally, and there are big benefits in cooperating, in terms of sharing costs, in terms of sharing risks, in terms of propagating the best answers.

The stimulus package, by its very nature, included one-off spending increases that will not be sustained. How do you expect agencies to manage the bump in spending without unsustainable expansion?

This is a really tough one, and I wouldn't pretend to have complete answers. One of the things that is happening at the National Institutes of Health is that they are funding proposals that passed muster in previous reviews that they didn't have enough money to fund. Some of that money will probably stretch over more than two years — you get that money out the door, but it can be spent over longer than a two-year period. That will help a bit. Some of the money is going into infrastructure, so you make the investment now but the improved infrastructure is delivering benefits over time. The other way to deal with it, which the science community hopes for, is to find ways to increase those out-year budgets to the point that they don't suffer a decline. That's going to be very hard in the current economic climate.

The president renewed his call for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. What would you say to senators who question the utility — and wisdom — of doing so?

The first thing I would say is that I disagree with them. Our moral authority in the world is squandered if we refuse to accede to the one measure, which is seen by most of the parties [participating in] the Non-Proliferation Treaty as an indispensible indicator of our real commitment. The nuclear weapons we already have are more than adequate for the limited purpose for which we should reserve them, which is deterring other people who have nuclear weapons from using theirs. I think the pursuit of a wider range of missions for nuclear weapons is a prescription for continuing proliferation.

Do you think the Energy Department's nuclear weapons programme should be restructured in the coming years?

There are a lot of conversations going on about that, and I don't want to pre-judge them. I have some thoughts about it, but this is probably not the time to air them.

More broadly, what are your priorities when it comes to the spread of nuclear energy and counterbalancing non-proliferation programmes?

I think we ultimately ought to look to put all uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing, if any is done, under multinational control. Those are the two technologies by which nuclear energy can be translated into nuclear weapons programmes. If you can put both of those under multinational control, so that multiple nations are operating the facilities, in that circumstance and only in that circumstance can you really be sure that nobody is going to use those technologies to make weapons. I think the world is probably ready for that. This is a personal view — I don't think the president has taken a position on that at that level of detail at this juncture, but if it were up to me, that's the direction we should be going.

The president said recently that there is a "sense of drift" at NASA, and yet the 2010 budget outline broadly supports the status-quo by retiring the shuttle to make room for manned spaceflight. Does NASA's mission need to be re-evaluated or not?

What the president said is our space programme has been drifting. What we had in the last administration was the articulation of a grand vision for going back to the moon and going back to Mars, but no budget to go with it. The consequences of that for NASA have been quite devastating, in terms of decimating the Earth sciences programme at NASA, decimating the aeronautics programme at NASA and putting at risk the constellation of Earth observation satellites.

Clearly we need to reconcile NASA's missions and budgets. We need to think about how we manage the right balance between manned space exploration and robotic space exploration. We need to manage the balance between looking up and looking down, the Earth observation part versus the space exploration part. We need to balance the aeronautics and the astronautics. That's going to have to involve a new NASA administrator.

Do we know when that is going to happen?

I certainly hope we have a new administrator in place in the next month — that is a hope, and not a prediction.

President Obama said in his inaugural speech that he wants to "restore science to its rightful place". What is that place, and what would count as a clear sign that science has been restored to it?

I would say the first sign is the appointments he has made. He has put real scientists in positions of real influence. The second thing is the scientists are at the table. We are at the table in every dimension of national policy where science matters, and that is most of them. We have access to the president. We have access to the national security advisor. We have access to the Treasury. This president understands the importance of science and technology to all of the challenges we face, and so he means to have the science and technology advice he needs.

How can scientists help? Do they need to engage more with government?

This office does reach out. We cannot possibly do all that we need to do and cover all that we need to cover without drawing on the resources of the wider science and engineering community. So one of the things that folks need to do is answer their phone when I and my colleagues call. I also think the wider community has a huge role to play in the education of the public and policymakers about the role of science and technology. I can't do that by myself.


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