A Political Symbiosis

By: Michael Xie

Dr. John P. Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Harvard University. During the Obama administration, he served as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the President’s Science Advisor, becoming the longest-serving advisor since its creation. Among numerous honors, Dr. Holdren was awarded one of the first MacArthur Prizes in 1981 and gave the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, as the chair of the executive committee. HSR sat down with Dr. Holdren to get his take on the ever-evolving relationship between the scientific world and public policy.

MX: When and why did you first get involved in science?

JPH: I was interested in science from the time I was in grade school, and so I decided early on that I wanted to work on issues at the intersection of science and public policy—big issues such as population resources, environment development, and international security. I was interested in those issues already in high school. I went to MIT to get a technical education and majored in aeronautics and astronautics with a minor in physics. Then I did a PhD in theoretical plasma physics and worked in the fusion energy program as a physicist at the Livermore Lab, with a deal with the head of the fusion energy division that I could spend one day a week working on the wider societal implications of fusion: What was this niche in the overall energy picture? Why did we need it? What characteristics would it need to have in order to be an attractive energy resource for society in the long run? I was appointed to my first National Academy of Science committee advising the government in 1970, the same year I got my PhD. I was an early advisor in the Council of Environmental Quality. I was a member of the Energy Research Advisory board of the Department of Energy toward the end of the 1970s. I basically spent my whole life at the boundary of science and public policy but most of it with my day job as an academic.

MX: What made you decide to get involved in public policy in addition to your scientific interests?

JPH: If you really want to change the world, it’s not enough to understand the world better. Science is about increasing our understanding of ourselves and our world and our universe and how it all works, but if you want to fix what’s wrong in terms of afflictions of the human condition—poverty, disease, conflict, and inequity—then you have to be prepared to apply those insights about how the world works and how technology works, and you have to get into the policy debate. You have to be prepared to engage with the different sectors of society rather than staying in your academic Ivory Tower. You need to engage with business, with government, and with civil society to get things done, and I was always interested in getting things done.

MX: What do you see as the major differences or disparities in government work and university work?

JPH: The wonderful thing about an academic setting is you have a tremendous amount of freedom, not only to choose what you work on but to spend whatever fraction of your time you want on a relatively small number of issues, whereas in government you don’t have a lot of choice. If you’re in the position that I was in, which was the Science and Technology Advisor to the President of the United States and the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, you have to be engaged in everything that relates to policy issues the President is focused on—that means the relation of science and technology with the economy; with biotechnology and public health; with energy, environment, climate change; with national and homeland security; with environmental conservation and protecting the oceans—and so you don’t have the luxury of spending as much time as you might like on one or two or three things.

You also have to deal, much more than in academic life, with emergencies. Emergencies like the H1N1 flu that materialized early in the first term or even before that with the economic recession, which the Obama administration inherited and needed very quickly to figure out how science and technology could be applied to economic recovery. Then, the Macondo oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Ebola outbreak. These emergencies come along when you’re in government, and they always tax your ability to do everything else you were supposed to be doing and deal with the emergency at the same time. Another big difference is, in academic life, you have the fun of having students, teaching classes, advising masters and doctoral dissertations, and working with postdocs. The closest thing to that in government is when you have fellows and interns in offices. You have some interaction with younger people who are in the process of learning new things and applying them to try to influence things for the better, but there’s a lot less of that because your other duties take up so much time. One of the principal functions of the university is teaching and mentoring, whereas that’s a very secondary function in government.

MX: How have you seen science and policy traditionally interact and how has that evolved over the years?

JPH: The interaction of science and policy goes back a very long way—certainly, to the administration of Abraham Lincoln when the National Academy of Sciences was founded. The two-way street between science and technology for policy—that is, how can insights from science and technology assist in the policy process, and, the other side of that coin, how can government choices and investments advance the state of science and technology in society— goes back 150 years.

It underwent a major transformation during WWII when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed distinguished MIT engineer and technical entrepreneur Vannevar Bush as director of the new Office of Scientific Research and Development in the White House. Bush became the first full time science and technology advisor to a US President. Most of that advice was on matters related to the war, and because science and technology for the military had a transformative effect during the war, Bush had the idea that similarly applying science and technology to civilian needs could have a transformative effect on the whole society. He wrote a book at the end of WWII called Science the Endless Frontier. It led ultimately to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950. There really emerged a symbiosis of government academia and industry, which was responsible for a large part of economic progress made by the United States over the ensuing decades. The symbiosis involved government paying for fundamental and early stage applied research in the universities and national laboratories, then the private sector picking up the most promising ideas that had emerged from that effort and converting those ideas into practice. Eric Lander, who was my co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and Eric Schmidt, who was the executive chairman of Google, wrote an op-ed piece called the “Miracle Machine” about how this symbiosis worked and arguing that it was very important that we not dismantle the “Miracle Machine” by reducing the government’s investments in research and development.

Initially after the war, most of the science and technology advice Presidents needed from their advisors related to issues such as nuclear weapons, early warning systems, bombers, and missiles, but over time as the effects of this “Miracle Machine” became more apparent, the advice that Presidents wanted expanded. In the Clinton administration the OSTP had a maximum of 66 people. That was bigger than in the previous administration, which was bigger than in the administration before that. The reason it kept growing is that domains in which Presidents needed to be paying attention in science and technology kept getting broader.

In the Obama administration, we ultimately had 135 people in the OSTP. I think the Obama administration was probably, of all modern presidencies, the administration most engaged with science and technology issues. President Obama understood how and why science and technology mattered, and so he was very interested in how we could use science and technology to advance society’s interest. We in the Obama administration launched a very wide variety of initiatives in biomedicine and public health, a whole set of initiatives on science and technology for the economy, initiatives on open data, and a whole set of initiatives on energy and climate change.

President Obama was seized with the proposition that our challenges and opportunities were so big and our resources so limited that partnership was essential, and virtually every one of the initiatives was constructed as a partnership with engagement of the government with the private sector, universities, and civil society. The other thing, which has grown over the years, has been international collaboration in science and technology. Some of the earliest collaborations internationally were on fusion energy in the late 1950s. The areas of collaboration expanded subsequently to include space, and the International Space Station today is a terrific example. One of the instructions that President Obama gave me at the beginning of the administration is to build up further our science and technology collaborations with China, Russia, India, Japan, the European Union, Brazil, Korea, and we did that. This dimension of science technology and policy being an issue that is international has become very pervasive.

MX: How has the changing political climate and transition to the Trump administration affected the scientific world? How much does governmental change affect scientific thought?

JPH: The choice of who is going to be the President potentially has quite a lot of impact on what the role of science and technology in government is going to be and what the role of government in supporting science and technology is going to be. So far, President Trump has appointed a number of people to positions of great responsibility who don’t appear to be interested in scientific or technological facts. You’ve got people who deny the reality of climate change running the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget in the White House, and people who are at least skeptical about the reality of climate change running the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy. This is absolutely extraordinary in terms of a lack of interest in the relevance of science to the government decision-making. A lot of the science and technology appointments are still vacant many many months into the administration. You have to assume either the administration has been incredibly distracted by other things or that they’re just not very interested in the role of science and technology in these departments and agencies. I have no successor. There is no one that has been nominated to be the Director of the OSTP, no one who is serving as the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

In addition, the Trump administration has proposed budgets that would severely cut government investments in research and development. One has to hope that the Congress, which ultimately appropriates the money, will not accept the Trump administration’s proposals. Trump’s proposals would cut research on energy technology by about 50 percent. This is after we committed in Paris with 19 other countries— now 21 other countries have joined—to double the government’s investments in clean energy research and development in five years, and now President Trump proposes to cut it in half in one year. President Trump proposed to cut the National Institutes of Health by 20 percent. The Congress does not seem inclined to do it, fortunately, but cuts at the National Science Foundation and cuts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate a lack of understanding about the role of government investments in science.

President Trump and others around him have said, “If research is worth doing, the private sector will do it.” This is not actually realistic. The private sector will never invest in very basic research to the extent that societies need and require because the uncertainty is too great, the risks of failure too high for the private sector to do it. That’s why we’ve had and needed this symbiosis between government making investments in basic research, taking those risks on behalf of all of society because what we know from history is that you can’t predict which basic research project is going to yield big gains. We know when you look at the whole portfolio that some of them are transformative. Think about the laser, which emerged from absolutely fundamental research. The people who figured out the laser had no idea that 50 years later that lasers would be the way we do eye surgery, the way we cut metal, the way we copy documents, the way we play videos. No private enterprise would have invested in all the research needed to do that. Even more recently: the fracking revolution and all the natural gas that has enabled us to displace a lot of coal and electricity with much cleaner natural gas. The discoveries that enabled that were all funded by the federal government. They weren’t funded by the energy companies. There’s a lot of reason to worry about what the current administration is doing. Now, we will have to some extent, the private sector, states, cities, civil society organizations, picking up some of the things that the government drops, but the government’s role is too important and too costly for all of this to be picked up.

MX: Do you think we have enough scientists involved with policy at the current time?

JPH: I have said for a long time that it would be a good thing if more scientists devoted some of their time to thinking about the implications of their science, the implications of technology for society—if they spent some of their time explaining to a wider audience what they do, why they do it, how they know what they know, what the implications are for society. In 2007, when I was the president of the AAAS, I said that I thought scientists and engineers should tithe 10 percent of their time, no matter what their main focus was, to thinking, talking, and writing about the wider implications of what they do because we have a society now where virtually every issue is infused with science and technology. We need our scientists and technologists to do a better job communicating with everybody else about what those connections are. So, the short answer is, we don’t yet have enough scientists and technologists engaged with public policy. We have a lot— literally thousands—of scientists participate in the studies of the National Academies of Science and Engineering and Medicine, advising the government on different topics. The numbers aren’t small but it’s not as big as we need it to be. Additionally, we need to get better at STEM education, so that we have not just assurance that the next generation of Nobel Prize winners will be educated and trained but that we will have the tech-savvy workforce the jobs the twenty-first century increasingly require and the science-savvy citizenry that democracy requires if it’s going to work in an era where science and technology are infusing virtually every public policy issue.

MX: What areas of science will be the most important for policy and what areas of policy will be the most important for science in the next few years?

JPH: Many people say that the end of the 20th century was the start of the age of information technology and the 21st century is going to be the age of biotechnology. I think increasingly it’s all of the above. I think we’re seeing more and more interactions between biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology, robotics, and other fields. We need to have ways to regulate these very rapidly moving technologies that protect public safety but at the same time not stifle innovation. That’s an enormous challenge for policy. A whole array of defense technology is going to continue to be important: autonomous vehicles, robots of various kinds. Information warfare and cyber security has obviously become very important. We have to figure out what we’re going to do to protect privacy in an era when all kinds of information can be put together to learn things about people’s “private business.”

There’s also a great challenge around employment. If we have self-driving cars and trucks, a lot of people are going to become unemployed. What are those people going to do? In the past, we’ve largely succeeded in inventing new jobs just about as fast as old kinds of jobs were made obsolete, and so we don’t have a huge unemployment rate in this country. But the unemployment rate is too high in too many places, and we need to worry about technological unemployment, where technologies replace jobs faster than jobs are created. Artificial intelligence is also becoming more important. There’s lots of specialized artificial intelligence out there already. There are people thinking it will become possible, over the next several decades, to have a more generalized artificial intelligence. How is that going to be used? How are we going to benefit from its upside while protecting ourselves from its downside? These are going to be huge policy issues.


Michael Xie ’20 is a sophomore in Leverett House concentrating in Chemistry and Physics.


[1] J. P. Holdren, personal interview, Oct. 16, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: