Science in the Obama White House: An Interview With John Holdren, Part 2

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Yesterday's installment of our recent conversation with John Holdren, the president's science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), focused on key elements of the administration's science agenda, in particular, climate and clean energy research. In today's portion of that interview, Holdren offers an insider's perspective on how the Obama Administration manages science, his interactions with other agency heads, and his 16-hour workdays.

Q: How well are you balancing the outreach side of your job, such as giving talks and reaching out to scientists, with the inside part, getting the agencies to work together on science policy?

J.H.: Within the "inward" side, there are a number of functions: On one hand, my job and OSTP's job is to make sure the president and his senior advisers have the inputs from science and technology that bear on the decisions they're dealing with, ... and the other side is the policy for science and technology, including the budgets for research and development, what we need to do for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education, and what we need to do in terms of scientific workforce issues. ...

Another balance is [between] strategic thinking and crisis response. That is, how much of your time do you spend responding to things that have to be dealt with right now versus thinking about how we are doing and which direction we should be going as a country in terms of science and technology.

Q: So how are you doing on these various tasks?

J.H.: I think on the balance of inward versus outward, it largely takes care of itself in the sense that when the president needs to know more about something, that's what you do. Your highest priority is making sure that the president has the information he needs to make the choices he needs to make. ... Whatever has to be postponed or reduced gets postponed or reduced so that you have the time and resources to advise the president. ...

The budget process has its own timetable and its own demands, and you have to put in the time to work with the agencies, to work with [the Office of Management and Budget]. ...

You only do the external stuff—meeting with the community, for example—as it is consistent with those other obligations. So if I have to be there to deal with the 2012 budget or to meet with the president to talk about the science and technology dimensions of the new START treaty, or the clean-energy options we ought to be investing in, I'm going to choose the president.

Q: What did you learn about the president during the process of putting together his 2011 budget request? You were still pretty new, and it was a pretty significant policy decision.

J.H.: It was. Even before that, what I learned about the president's commitment to science and technology was the process which produced the stimulus, where we got over $18 billion for basic research in the stimulus, we got over $100 billion for science and technology, ... what I learned about him was what I thought I knew before, ... that he believes science and technology really does matter for the big challenges we face. He had demonstrated in his [April 2009] speech at the National Academy of Sciences not only the importance of science and technology to the applied challenges we face, but the importance of basic science and research infrastructure.

Q: In that speech, the president said he was "restoring science to its rightful place." Do you think scientists are playing a more influential role in this Administration than in the previous one?

J.H.: I don't like to get into the business of invidious comparisons with the previous Administration if I can help it. I was a vocal critic of the previous Administration's treatment of science and technology. I thought that Jack Marburger [science adviser and OSTP director under President George W. Bush] didn't have enough access to the president but that the reason was that the president didn't have much interest in science and technology. He had other preoccupations, obviously. And at the same time I think that Jack got a lot done quietly and often below the radar screen. ...

Jack had a harder time because he had a president who just didn't, in a sense, "get it" in the way President Obama does about the relevance of science and technology and the importance of him getting it. You saw that, I think, on the three issues during the Bush Administration that were seen as having high science and technology content: One was ballistic missile defense, one was stem cells, and one was climate change. And on all of those issues, it was pretty clear that the Administration arrived at its stance almost before the science adviser got there and that science and technology considerations were not a factor in those decisions.

Over the course of time, the Bush Administration did get involved in different things. For example, in 2004, the president announced a new vision for our space program. The vision was to return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2020 and to go to Mars by 2030. But they never provided the budgets. ... So I have a feeling that Jack Marburger didn't have a lot to say about that because, if he had, I think there wouldn't have been such a massive disconnect between the mission that was announced and the budget that was provided.

You've read the reports about the Bush Administration's performance in science and technology in terms of scientific integrity. There were all these nutty things going on in terms of what got posted on the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] Web site about the ineffectiveness of condoms in fighting AIDS and the effectiveness of abstinence. There was these [cases] of political decisions affecting the composition of scientific advisory committees.

Q: Do you feel you've restored the role of science on those issues?

J.H.: I feel we have. ... What it means to have science in its rightful place is that science is at the table. That the president and his senior advisers are not making decisions unaware of what the relevant science and technology have to say about it. But that doesn't mean that the preferences of scientists will always be the final decision.

Q: Is it fair to say that the failure to meet the July 2009 deadline to issue the scientific integrity guidelines for agencies is a measure of your limited clout?

J.H.: No, I don't think so. That's a very special kind of problem. You have a large number of stakeholders; you have a large diversity in the way their operations work; they all have their own ideas about what is desirable versus what is practical, and you have a situation in which the president has laid out a set of principles which are themselves very strong, and your challenge is to add value to those principles, which means you have to add some stuff which is quite specific. Which means you have the problem: Can you make it specific and still applicable across the full range of agencies? There's sort of a choice of how much of the detail do you leave up to the individual agencies, and what do you specify.

There were various phases in which we thought we had that right and then in further discussion with the stakeholders we had to redo parts of it.

Q: What has been your biggest mistake in terms of running this organization, which is bigger than any you've run before.

J.H.: Well, it started out smaller than things I've run before. OSTP had about 45 people when I took the job, and we have increased its size [to about 100]. The Woods Hole Research Center had about 60 people when I ran it, so the same ballpark. It's not that the management challenges are so much bigger, it's that the complexity of the tasks is bigger.

I think the biggest challenge that we face—and it's one my deputy director, Tom Kalil, told me would be my greatest challenge when we came into office—is how do you keep the urgent from driving out the important. ...

[There's] this tension between doing what you have to do on a given day because the budget documents are due or the president wants a particular thing or you've got to have a meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology or the NASA administrator has to talk to you about the next flight, versus sitting back and saying how do we think the country is going in terms of science and technology.

I think in some respects we ended up with too much responding to the urgent and too little long-term thinking. I think we're doing somewhat better on that now. I think we're more systematically setting aside time, which we hold sacred, in which we brainstorm about where we're going and try to convert those sessions into position papers for the chief of staff and for the president in terms of how OSTP can more effectively advance the goals of the president and the goals of the country.

Q: Did the oil spill interfere with that process?

J.H.: That happened, too. We had distractions.

Q: Is it a harder job than you thought?

J.H.: Absolutely. I wasn't totally naïve, because I'd been in and out of the White House as a member of the Clinton PCAST, ... so I knew something about how OSTP works.

The complexity is one thing. You rarely have the luxury of spending 45 minutes on something before something else interrupts. I'm typically at my desk at 6:30 in the morning. I typically don't leave until some time between 7:30 and 10:30 at night, and in all that time, the only time in which I might get an hour to work on something is after 9:00 at night or before 7 in the morning.

Even with a good staff, even with four strong deputies, the pace at which issues end up needing a decision from me is extraordinary. So nothing gets done as quickly as you expect just in terms of what your own office is doing. ... And the amount of interactions with other offices is incredible.

I get calls every day, from Cabinet secretaries, from agency administrators, from NASA and NSF, from people who have something they think I need to pay attention to. They want my help with something, or they just want to give me a heads-up because it would be embarrassing if something came to the president's notice and I hadn't told him about it. ...

In the case of agencies that are run by Cabinet secretaries, they have direct access to the president. But in the case of agencies that don't have Cabinet secretaries, like NASA and NSF, their access to the president is through me.

Q: How often a week do you get a call saying, "We need this by tomorrow"?

J.H.: I typically get calls like that multiple times per day. ... "We need this by noon tomorrow, or by 4:00 tomorrow."

Q: It sounds exhausting.

J.H.: It is, but it's also exhilarating. I still find it more exhilarating than exhausting. Of course, sometimes it's frustrating because you don't get as much done as you wanted to get done, or in the case of scientific integrity, as you repeatedly said you'd get done.

Q: What has surprised you most about the job?

J.H.: The first surprise was the breadth of OSTP's activities in domains which, despite my previous experience with OSTP as a member of the White House, I was not fully aware of. For example, OSTP has much larger responsibilities in the national security domain than I had been aware of, even though I had all the [security] clearances before. ... The national security-defense challenges alone could occupy you full-time. We have several people in recent months who have been spending time on rare earth elements. So the range is incredible. Another was OSTP's responsibilities in regards to NASA and NSF, ... and I was quite surprised at how much time I interacted with those agencies.

Q What's your proudest achievement on science or technology in the first 2 years?

J.H.: It's a tie for first with the budgets we've gotten for science and technology and the initiatives we've been able to launch in STEM education, including Educate to Innovate, which features such remarkable participation from the private and philanthropic sectors. I think that effort, which now includes the Change the Equation initiative with the participation of 100 CEOs, is really going to have an impact.

Q: What single published finding or scientific paper has had the biggest impact on your office?

J.H.: There are things which are influencing debate in important ways, but they have yet to influence policy. For example, Craig Venter's work with synthetic biology had a very substantial amount of resonance and exposure. ... That [issue] is still being looked at by the president's bioethics commission.

The National Academy report on [greenhouse gas] stabilization trajectories ... was a presentation that made manifest in more concrete and compelling form than many of the previous ones in terms of where we were headed in terms of likely impacts on the United States. ...

[Another is] the Academies' report that came out last year on forensic science that suggested much of forensic science is less solid than is assumed. We ended up spending a lot of effort, and we're still spending a lot of effort on what needs to be done to shore that up and what are the policy implications. In the meantime, we're working with the Justice Department. That [report] was quite a surprise. I'd not given a lot of thought to the scientific foundations of forensic science. But that one was a blockbuster.

*This item has been corrected 2:20 p.m., 27 December. The original version of this item mistakenly identified "education" instead of "engineering" in the acronym STEM. It also misquoted Holdren on a sentence about Marburger's tenure in the White House. The correct sentence reads, "So I have a feeling that Jack Marburger didn't have a lot to say about that ... ."

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