Advising the President on Science "the Job of a Lifetime"
Climate action may well be a significant part of President Obama's legacy, and Dr. John Holdren is the man helping him translate science into policy.
Dr. John Holdren is 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. What all that means is that he's President Obama's right-hand man when it comes to all things science and technology.
"It's the job of a lifetime," says Dr. Holdren.
That's quite a statement, given Dr. Holdren's previous career highlights.
Before being tapped by the Obama administration, Dr. Holdren was Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He was also - simultaneously - professor in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And before that, he served on the faculty of University of California, Berkeley, and studied at MIT and Stanford. He's authored some three hundred papers and articles and half a dozen books on energy and the environment.
Dr. Holdren also holds two of the most prestigious awards out there. In 1981, he was awarded one of the earliest MacArthur Fellowships, popularly known as genius grants, for his work at the intersection of technology, the environment, and public policy. And in 1995, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a group working against the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.
Trained as a physicist, Dr. Holdren has spent most of his career working on how to address global environmental threats, from population growth and nuclear proliferation to climate change. While he admits that science, alone, can't dictate public policy - there's clearly a role for personal and societal values - he says science can almost always inform policy decisions.
Luckily for him, President Obama has a healthy appetite for all things scientific. In fact, Dr. Holdren says he may well be the most scientifically informed president since Thomas Jefferson, citing conversations that can quickly jump from nuclear fusion to colony collapse disorder (a phenomenon in which honey bees mysteriously die or disappear). That makes Dr. Holdren's job demanding, even exhausting, but also exciting.
When it comes to one of the top issues Dr. Holdren's critics have called him a zealot, a doomsayer, and accused him of wanting to de-develop America. Holdren refutes that idea, saying we don't need to destroy our way of life to address climate change. To the contrary, he argues we need to take action - the sooner, the better - if we want to preserve our way of life. Still, that's not a message that plays well with a Republican-controlled Congress.
One thing Dr. Holdren doesn't have to worry about is convincing the president of the need for climate action. He says Mr. Obama has always been in the lead; his job is to support the president with whatever information he needs.
Faced with the hypothetical of a President (Hillary) Clinton and an invitation to stay on in his current position, Dr. Holdren demurs.
"I turned seventy this year," he laughs. "I’m not sure that a President Clinton would want a used science advisor.