Obama Adds to Science Team

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

On Saturday, President-elect Barack Obama confirmed that John Holdren will be his White House science adviser, a pick first reported here on ScienceInsider last week. The Harvard University professor, a physicist with deep knowledge of energy, climate, and nuclear weapons, was one of four people whom Obama introduced as "members of my science and technology team" in a short radio address devoted to science. But unlike the rest of Obama's Cabinet and White House choices, none of the four—Holdren, Harold Varmus, Eric Lander, and Jane Lubchenco—was rolled out in person and made available to the press. To use an analogy from the President-elect's favorite sport of basketball, only Holdren can really be considered a starter.

Two of the "team" members will actually be unpaid advisers. Obama announced that Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, will serve as co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Having two outside co-chairs will be a first for PCAST, which was reconstituted in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush after President Richard Nixon eliminated its predecessor because he didn't care for its advice. The council is staffed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren will direct, and he will also serve as PCAST's third co-chair.

PCAST has had a low profile under President George W. Bush, turning out worthy but rarely notable reports. Its 34 presidentially appointed members and irregular schedule—it averages three meetings a year—have helped make it an unwieldy body for advising the president on scientific issues. Obama acknowledged that fact by declaring that Holdren, Varmus, and Lander "will work to remake PCAST into a vigorous external advisory council that will shape my thinking on scientific aspects of my policy priorities."

Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, will be running the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Despite a $3.9-billion-a-year budget that includes the National Weather Service, NOAA is not well known to researchers outside of the marine and geosciences. But the incoming president's emphasis on climate is expected to provide Lubchenco with the opportunity to raise the profile of her agency, which is part of the multimissioned Department of Commerce.

Posted in Policy, Climate