Physicist John Holdren became Science Advisor to President Barack Obama in 2009. He serves as 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 (PCAST). Holdren holds degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from MIT and Stanford, and prior to his appointment 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, as well as professor in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Director of the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. This interview was conducted by APS News reporter Alaina G. Levine on February 18 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.
Q: House Republicans want to make huge cuts to funding for scientific research in FY2011, but President Obama’s proposed budget for FY2012 increases funding for scientific research significantly. Can you go into some detail regarding how high a priority science and scientific funding is for the President? And how hard will it be to fight for this?
A: There are two questions embedded there. The first one is the easiest–how high a priority this is for the President. It is a very high priority for him because he understands that science, technology, and innovation are the keys to our economic future, which obviously is so important, as well as keys to our environmental future, to our energy future, our national security. He said very aptly when he was speaking in North Carolina about this issue a couple of weeks ago that if you’re worried about your airplane being overloaded, you shouldn’t throw your engine overboard to make it lighter, and he was referring to the fact that science, technology and innovation have been the engine of our economic growth over the last 50 years. The largest part of our economic growth has been due to science, technology and innovation and their applications in the marketplace, in the factories, in the fields, so the President doesn’t want to throw the engine overboard. He’s been very clear. I don’t think any president has ever talked as much or as enthusiastically or as knowledgably about science, technology and innovation as this President has, and one can’t doubt the priority it is for him when you look at the task that he has faced in keeping the budget flat, frozen in the discretionary, non-defense part of the budget which is about 12.5% of the total budget, and everybody’s trying to take the cuts out of that little segment. It’s going to be a challenge to argue with the Congress about this. But I am optimistic, because I think betting against this President when he’s determined is probably not a good bet, and he’s not going to give up on his commitment and understanding of the importance of investing in science and technology.
Q: Whatever happens, you feel and the President feels that the nation’s scientific enterprises –the NSF, national labs, NASA and so forth - will emerge in good shape this fiscal year?
A: We are determined to make this happen. That’s our proposal and we plan to defend it vigorously.
Q: What can the physics community do to help you and the President prevail?
A: I think one of the things that is important for scientists of all disciplines, not just the physicists, is to become more engaged in making the case. It seems self-serving and self-interested for scientists to talk about how important science is, [but] we really need to do it and we need to make the case in terms of specific stories of ways in which advances that people have been involved in or know about in science have led to improvements in the quality of life, led to new products, new businesses, new jobs. And of course I am not suggesting that physicists should stop talking about the plain excitement of science and the expansion of knowledge, because that’s very important too. We understand it’s not only about solving practical problems that the country faces today, but it’s partly about who we are as human beings that we want to understand ourselves, the Universe around us, our place in it, and in fact, part of the interesting stories that need to be told are how we inspire more young people to go into science and math and engineering by talking about the excitement of discovery.
We need to get more kids excited about science and math and interested, and in fact the PCAST report on this subject had as its subtitle “Inspiration and Preparation.” Those are the two fundamental ingredients–we have to get better at inspiring kids and preparing kids.
Q: The President is requesting no funding for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, or DUSEL, in the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota, Is DUSEL part of the President’s priorities? Will it ever be built?
A: The National Science Board recommended against NSF’s continuing participation in DUSEL, which is obviously causing some consternation in the other governmental sponsor, the DOE. The DOE, however, still is engaged in DUSEL and there is funding for DUSEL over the year ahead so DUSEL is not going away in this budget, but the NSF’s participation is; I don’t want to quite say “going away” because I believe in the last week an agreement has been reached between NSF and DOE where NSF is going to contribute a bit of money to the continuing pumping that is needed to get the water out of there. [ Ed. Note:
APS News has confirmed that NSF will allocate about $4 M for this purpose.
] I think it’s fair to say that the DOE will be thinking about the best path for DUSEL over the next year, but DUSEL is in its budget. Our hope is that we are going to get Congress to appropriate these monies.
Q: The Tevatron at Fermilab is scheduled to be shut down. Can you speculate what could happen to Fermilab in the future? Will it become a lab without a mission?
A: The Tevatron has done wonderful things, we’ve learned a huge amount from the Tevatron, but it no longer looks like the most efficacious way to find the Higgs and I have to say we made a lot of tough choices in this budget. There are a lot of things that are clearly worthy that we would have wanted to fund in times that were fiscally not quite as constrained. People should not assume that things we had to cut or reduce we cut or reduced because we thought they were lousy ideas, but we had to make very tough choices between higher and lower priorities and the fact that in this fiscal environment we were able to do as much as we were for fundamental science as well as applied science I think is quite remarkable. But I’m not happy about some of the things we had to cut.
Q: What are the prospects for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? What kind of a priority is this for the President?
A: Clearly we felt we needed to get the New START agreement ratified before we could go to the Senate with the CTBT. I believe and the President believes that getting the CTBT ratified is important. There is always a process of determining how many major issues one can manage with the Congress at one time, and I suspect that the focus in the very immediate future is going to continue to be on the budgets, but I am confident that we will go to the Senate with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and that we’ll do it when we’re in a position to be confident of getting the votes.
Q: The issue of Cap and Trade seems to be dead with the current Congress. What is the President’s plan to reduce carbon emissions in the US and how does he intend to implement it?
A: We believe that putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions is one of the most effective ways to get onto the trajectory we need to reduce those emissions over time. Doing it with a price on carbon emissions is a market-oriented solution–it creates incentives for the ingenuity that’s out there in the private sector to develop the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions. We think there ought to be bipartisan support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in these market-based ways, but we obviously failed to get that support in the last Congress. The circumstances in the last Congress were more favorable to getting such legislation through than in this Congress, so one has to assume that the likelihood of getting such legislation through in the next two years is pretty low. We will do everything else we can to address the climate change challenge both on the mitigation side and on the adaptation side, but we’re probably not going to have the benefit of a price on carbon in the next two years. After that, predictions about the future are difficult. An optimist in this domain might believe that after 2012 we will have a Congress more amenable to doing this. I think there are pretty good reasons to believe that the willingness to do what makes sense will go up over time. One of those reasons is that unfortunately the symptoms of damage from climate change are highly likely to continue to increase and that means over time more and more people will become more convinced of the need to act and to act in a perhaps more vigorous way than what we’re already doing. We’re doing a lot already with clean energy technology, and various policies and technologies to increase the efficiency of energy use, and we can do a lot beyond the trajectory we need to be in the next two years without having the price on carbon, but ultimately were going to need it.
Q: In regards to the US position on the world stage of science and our loss of preeminence: I know you and the President are establishing many educational programs that perhaps in the long term can help restore the US reputation as the scientific leader. How else can we stem the tide of Americans not being considered the top scientists or science students?
A: That’s a complicated question. Number one, the United States is still the world leader in many domains of science and we still get far more than our share of Nobel Prizes. We are still doing fantastic scientific research in a wide range of domains. Our universities, and particularly our great research universities, are the best in the world. Students from the countries that we worry about being ahead of us, flock to the United States to go to our universities and they do it for good reason, so we should not overstate the predicament. We need to do better in science, technology, engineering, and math education, and we need to do it for at least three reasons. One reason, of course, is that we want to inspire and educate the next generation of Nobel Prize and National Medal of Science [winners]. But we also need to lift our game in STEM education in order to have the technology-savvy workforce that the 21st century is demanding, and we need to have the science-savvy citizenry that is essential to a well-functioning democracy where more and more of the policy issues that are before the public and before their representatives have science and technology content. So there are a lot of reasons that we need to lift our game in STEM education, not just the idea that we have to be number one in Nobel Prizes. But again I’m optimistic. There’s a tremendous amount of creativity and ingenuity in this country, and as we improve our capacities in STEM education, we’re going to inspire more kids to go into these fields and more of them are going to turn out to be superstars and ultimately we’re going to do well.