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Obama advisor discusses White House science policy

The United States will suffer in the future if it does not invest in the basic research that is the foundation for applied technology, John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a lecture Wednesday.

Holden explained that Obama has stood behind his pledge to restore science to the forefront of the administration's attention, including investment in multi-disciplinary and high-risk research, support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education reform and development of an advanced information technology ecosystem. However, Holdren said the administration faces challenges in sustaining support for research and development amid budget cuts. These challenges are aggravated by the attacks of some legislators on basic research and climate and sustainability science funding proposals, he said.


In addition, Holdren said the administration should be more concerned with answering questions for the future, such as science education and basic research, rather than focusing on reacting to really pressing matters.

“What could we really achieve in terms of our policy of science and science relating to policy?” he said.

Holden noted that the president’s time and energy are incredibly strained given current issues facing his administration, from Middle Eastern relations to sustaining unemployment benefits.

“It is almost a miracle if he has time left to think energy, climate change and technology,” Holdren said.

The president, he said, is fascinated by science and engineering and wants to understand, for example, why scientists have not yet successfully achieved fusion energy and how it could impact the country.

“He’s quite an extraordinary man when it comes to his ability to absorb and synthesize information about science and technology,” he said.


However, Holdren noted the challenge of “staying in one’s lane.” He explained that although Obama is deeply informed about issues related to science and technology and has embraced a high proportion of the recommendations issued by the OSTP, if the president were to ask Holdren a question about the increase in Department of Energy funding for nuclear weapons, he could provide technical facts surrounding nuclear weapons but would not be in a position to advise measures that could move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Holdren also addressed the disconnect between Obama’s verbal support for nuclear energy and tangible progress being made to realize this technology. He cited the difficulties of having to compete with inexpensive natural gas and figuring out how to properly dispose of nuclear waste.

“The Obama administration would like to see nuclear energy playing a larger role and would like to see the benefits of zero-carbon electricity generation,” Holdren said.

Moreover, Holdren explained that the prioritization of the climate action plan has pushed more basic research into the background.

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“It’s painful, because we end up cutting back on things that should be funded at a higher level,” Holdren said.

Holdren spokeon Wednesdayafternoon at1:30 p.m. in Dodd Auditorium as part of the “Speaking Knowledge to Power” symposium. The lecture was hosted by the Wilson School and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.