OSTP Director John Holdren Addresses AAAS Forum

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Publication date: 
1 May 2009

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren delivered the keynote address yesterday at the 34th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.  Holdren’s address, and that of House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) which followed, were optimistic about the outlook for science in the Obama Administration.

“Our biggest asset: the President’s engagement with S&T,” concluded Holdren’s final slide.  “This is a president who just lights up,” Holdren said, “when the subject is science and technology,” later adding, “this is why we are going to get this done.”

Holdren started his presentation with a review of the two major responsibilities of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and his position as the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.  The first, to provide “science and technology for policy” which Holdren described as “independent, objective advice for the President and Vice President about S&T germane to all policy issues.”  The second, “policy for science and technology,” consisting of  “analysis, recommendations, and coordination . . . on R&D budgets and related policies” such as STEM education, workforce issues, scientific integrity, and related matters.

Assisting Holdren will be four Associate Directors, and a staff of sixty employees.  Many will be detailees from the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense.  OSTP has an annual budget of about $6 million.

Holdren will co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology with Eric Lander and Harold Varmus.  On Monday, the White House announced PCAST members;   Holdren will also co-chair, with President Obama, the National Science and Technology Council, described as a “Cabinet-level Council [that] is the principal means within the executive branch to coordinate science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development enterprise.”  See the NSTC website for additional information.

Holdren identified five major applied challenges, including S&T for the economy, public health, energy, environment, and national and homeland security.  The “foundations of success” to meet these challenges include the U.S. capability for fundamental research, STEM education, information and communications technology, space capabilities, and supporting policies in areas such as intellectual property, scientific integrity, and visas.

The Obama Administration has moved quickly on several major scientific and technological initiatives.  These include the President’s announcement on allocating 3 percent of the nation’s GDP to R&D, significant S&T funding in the economic stimulus package, the preliminary FY 2010 budget request, initiatives in STEM education, clean energy and climate, health, stem-cell guidelines, and scientific integrity, and appointments.  All of this is set, Holdren said, in an “exceedingly demanding budget situation.”

In response to questions from the audience, Holdren said that “voices are being heard” regarding climate change in the Administration. The “policy challenge” is the major factor in  deliberations about how green house gases should be controlled, he said.  In response to another question, he agreed that metrics for science programs should be more than just the funding provided.  When asked if NASA should be included in those agencies for which the  budget is doubled, Holdren replied that fundamental science funding for the agency should be strengthened.  He predicted that the Administration will succeed in dealing with Congress, and will work to avoid the boom and bust funding cycle that has characterized previous science agency budgeting.

Chairman Gordon’s remarks built on those of Holdren.  He recounted a conversation with President Obama in which the President said, “I’m a science guy.” Gordon told the forum that science funding must be spent wisely, later saying that the case must be made that “science is about jobs.”  The science community must “put a face on it” he advised, so that the public sees science as being about more than just scientists.  “A lot of the future has to do with you,” Gordon exclaimed.