John Holdren to be Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

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Publication date: 
22 December 2008

During a radio address last Friday, President-Elect Barack Obama announced his selection of John Holdren to be the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and one of three co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

In making this announcement, Obama highlighted the importance of science, stating: "more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology."

Obama also announced that Harold Varmus and Eric Lander will serve with Holdren as the other co-chairs of PCAST. In addition, Obama will nominate Jane Lubchenco to be the the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A transcript of Obama's remarks follows:

"Over the past few weeks, Vice President-Elect Biden and I have announced some of the leaders who will advise us as we seek to meet America’s twenty-first century challenges, from strengthening our security, to rebuilding our economy, to preserving our planet for our children and grandchildren. Today, I am pleased to announce members of my science and technology team whose work will be critical to these efforts.

"Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs – today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.

"Right now, in labs, classrooms and companies across America, our leading minds are hard at work chasing the next big idea, on the cusp of breakthroughs that could revolutionize our lives. But history tells us that they cannot do it alone. From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.

"Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient - especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States – and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

"Dr. John Holdren has agreed to serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. John is a professor and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center. A physicist renowned for his work on climate and energy, he’s received numerous honors and awards for his contributions and has been one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change. I look forward to his wise counsel in the years ahead.

"John will also serve as a Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—or PCAST—as will Dr. Harold Varmus and Dr. Eric Lander. Together, they will work to remake PCAST into a vigorous external advisory council that will shape my thinking on the scientific aspects of my policy priorities.

"Dr. Varmus is no stranger to this work. He is not just a path-breaking scientist, having won a Nobel Prize for his research on the causes of cancer – he also served as Director of the National Institutes of Health during the Clinton Administration. I am grateful he has answered the call to serve once again.

"Dr. Eric Lander is the Founding Director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and was one of the driving forces behind mapping the human genome – one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. I know he will be a powerful voice in my Administration as we seek to find the causes and cures of our most devastating diseases.

"Finally, Dr. Jane Lubchenco has accepted my nomination as the Administrator of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is devoted to conserving our marine and coastal resources and monitoring our weather. An internationally known environmental scientist and ecologist and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Jane has advised the President and Congress on scientific matters, and I am confident she will provide passionate and dedicated leadership at NOAA.

"Working with these leaders, we will seek to draw on the power of science to both meet our challenges across the globe and revitalize our economy here at home. And I’ll be speaking more after the New Year about how my Administration will engage leaders in the technology community and harness technology and innovation to create jobs, enhance America’s competitiveness and advance our national priorities.

"I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.

"Thank you."

One of the first comments on the Holdren announcement came from Association of American Universities President Robert M. Berdahl:

"On behalf of sixty of the nation’s leading research universities, I congratulate President-elect Obama on his choice of John Holdren as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He has the experience, skills, and broad knowledge of science and technology to help fulfill the President-elect’s commitment to science, research, and innovation.

"In addition, I want to commend President-elect Obama’s decision to give Dr. Holdren the senior rank of Assistant to the President. It reflects an understanding of the critical role that science and technology must play in addressing the serious challenges facing our country.

"One of those challenges is energy security. Given his expertise in the field of energy, Dr. Holdren will be in excellent position to work with Steven Chu at the Department of Energy to formulate a comprehensive national energy policy and to implement a research and development strategy that will ensure our nation’s future energy security.

"Finally, I want to thank President-elect Obama for making this appointment early enough to have the greatest impact on personnel and policy. This early appointment will enable Dr. Holdren not only to coordinate Administration policy initiatives from the beginning but also to help ensure that those selected for Executive Branch positions involved in shaping science policies have the experience and expertise to serve the nation well."

Berdahl's comment about Obama's designation of Holdren's position to be that of an Assistant to the President, as well as the timely naming of the other members of the President-Elect's science and technology team, reflects a major recommendation in a report from the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars. In June, the Center released "Critical Upgrade: Enhanced Capacity for White House Science and Technology Policymaking: Recommendations for the Next President" in which it recommended:

"The President should appoint a nationally respected leader to be Assistant for Science and Technology. This individual should serve at the cabinet level. The appointment should be made early in the new Administration, along with the appointments of heads of cabinet-level agencies."

FYI #88 provides additional information on this report, and a link to it.

Senator Jeff Bingman (D-NM) also released a statement on the Holdren announcement:

“Dr. John Holdren is a terrific pick to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy. As the President’s top Science Advisor, Dr. Holdren will play a central role in advising the new administration on programs and policies that will sustain America’s scientific preeminence and economic competitiveness. Previously, Dr. Holdren lead the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology studies that became the basis for many of the provisions of the 2007 and 2005 energy bills. Again, I commend President-elect Obama’s choice of Dr. Holdren and look forward to working with him on confronting our nation’s pressing scientific and energy challenges.”

Holden's confirmation hearing will be before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, chaired by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI).

Additional information on Holdren's background can be found here.