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

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

John Holdren has been discussing the nation's science policy with Barack Obama for nearly 2 years, first as an adviser to his 2008 campaign and then, since last year, as the president's science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Last week, Holdren sat down with ScienceInsider during the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California. Here is an edited version of that conversation, which will appear in two installments. In today's conversation, Holdren talks about the Administration's science agenda, in particular, climate and clean energy research. In part 2, he offers an insider's perspective on how the Obama Administration manages science, his interactions with other agency heads, and his 16-hour workdays.

Q: A recent report by PCAST [the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] laid out new steps on energy R&D. Is there going to be a new push on energy from the White House that's similar to how the Bush Administration rolled out its American Competitiveness Initiative in 2006?

J.H.: Well, I hope so. I mean, the president is absolutely on board. PCAST met with him and talked in great detail about its energy study before it came out publicly, and I think he was enthusiastic about its recommendations. Now some of them are going to be challenging to do. One particular challenge is, Can you really find $10 billion more a year for research and development and demonstrations?

The report makes clear that you're not going to get that [amount] through the usual budget process in these tight fiscal times, but there are certainly other ways that you can get it. The Electric Power Research Institute once functioned with a very substantial budget that it obtained by getting its electric utility members to give like a 10th of a cent per kilowatt hour. And you know a 10th of a cent per kilowatt hour would raise roughly $4 billion per year. ...

[There are steps] you can take, they're mostly energy efficiency, that have negative costs. And the reason they have negative costs is because they repay in energy savings more than you have to invest to put them in place. But they also happen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I call that the low-hanging fruit. Some of it is on the ground. But for some of it there's a fence around the tree, meaning barriers to picking the low-hanging fruit. Those include lack of information, because consumers don't really know what's available to them. ...

The next set of items in that supply curve is above the line, which means you have to pay for them. But they would [be feasible] if you had the kind of price on carbon that seems likely in the next 20 years. If [emitting] carbon was $30 a ton, for instance, you would do most of that stuff. ...

[The most expensive] things are things that would be too expensive even if you had a $30 price on carbon. And for those things you need research and development and demonstration.

Q. Could you talk a little about environmental monitoring satellites?

J.H.: When we came into office, we had the challenge of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. ... One of my instructions, both from the president and the Congress, was, "You need to fix this." We need to get NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense on the same page.

Q: How's that effort going?

J.H.: I think we've largely gotten it done, that is, we've largely gotten NASA and NOAA and DOD on the same page, and we've gotten an agreed scheme for going forward that will cover the missions and the instruments and the responsibilities that we need. Then the challenge becomes the budget. That's not resolved yet; we don't have the 2011 budget yet.

Q: On the budget, what has it meant that science was exempt from the 3-year funding freeze on discretionary and research spending in the president's 2011 budget request?

J.H.: It wasn't really exempt. What happened was there was a back and forth. In the initial cuts, science was not exempt. There's a conversation that happens with the president that goes, "Mr. President, here is a budget that complies with your initial guidance. And if this is the budget you go with, here's how much you will have to do in science and technology, and here's what you won't be able to do that you might want to do."

Then the president looks at that and decides whether the budget that meets his original guidance will do, and he decided last year he wanted to do more. So we didn't exempt science last year—science went through the same process everyone else did last year and came out with a budget that was flat with 2010. But then the president had an understanding that some of his explicit priorities he'd committed to would not be doable under that flat budget, so he decided to spend more. And that included upticks in the NSF budget and the DOE Office of Science, because without that, he couldn't stay on his trajectory to meet his commitment to double the budget of those agencies in a decade. It included additional money for NIH; it included additional money for NASA.

Q: What metrics do you find useful in tracking the nation's scientific performance?

J.H.: We try to track all the metrics that we can, and we also try to spend some time thinking of better ones. There are input metrics like, "How much money are you spending on R&D?", "How many scientists are you graduating?" You look at patents, you look at publications, and you look at rates of improvement of different performance. That is, you look at rates of improvement in energy efficiency. You look at rates of improvement in the capacity to control emissions in cost-effective ways. ...

The ones that get the most attention from the public are, "How do your kids do in international standardized tests?" How much money are you spending? How many kids are you graduating?" ... We're still doing very well in many fields, and indeed we lead the world in many fields. At the same time, there are a lot of fields in which it makes great sense to make common cause and cooperate internationally rather than competing. Big science is one example.

Q. What will it take to advance the Administration's goals on climate policy?

J.H.: In the domain we've been talking about here, energy and climate, we have not been able to do as much as we had hoped. There are a number of reasons for that, including the unexpected and numerous crises that ended up taking a lot of the time and energy of people in the Administration, and the fact that the health care issue took so much more time and proved so much more difficult than expected. It didn't leave a lot of time to develop the consensus to try to get through [Congress] something like [energy]. ...

With the composition of the new Congress, we're unlikely to get the kind of legislation we were seeking in the last one, which really does everything as one big package and gets a cap-and-trade approach or another approach to putting a price on carbon. So we're going to have to do a lot of other things.

*This item has been corrected 2:20 p.m., 27 December. Holdren became a White House science adviser in January 2009 and the director of the Office of Science and Technology policy in March 2009.

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