John Holdren on science in the Obama era

Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama’s national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests ...

Liu Jin/Getty Images
Liu Jin/Getty Images
Liu Jin/Getty Images

Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama's national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests was a reprint of the 1946 bestseller, One World or None, a collection of essays penned by scientists warning of the coming nuclear age.

Holdren talked a bit about the role of science and technology in the Obama administration. He noted the happy uptick in intellectual capital over the Bush years, pointing to the multiple Nobel laureates at the helm of federal agencies, and the administration's increasing willingness to examine the role of technology in achieving other priorities, such as healthcare delivery and development assistance. But even so, darn it's hard making progress, he said, in this political and economic environment. Not many big concrete, accomplishments to brag about. No projections on future climate or carbon policy. 

Yet, one passing remark gave me some hope: When Holdren took the job, he had expected much of his role to entail educating the president. However, Holdren found, as he put it, "When I go in to meet with the president, I almost never have to explain to him how the underlying technology works. We go immediately to the question of: 'What should we do?'"

Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama’s national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests was a reprint of the 1946 bestseller, One World or None, a collection of essays penned by scientists warning of the coming nuclear age.

Holdren talked a bit about the role of science and technology in the Obama administration. He noted the happy uptick in intellectual capital over the Bush years, pointing to the multiple Nobel laureates at the helm of federal agencies, and the administration’s increasing willingness to examine the role of technology in achieving other priorities, such as healthcare delivery and development assistance. But even so, darn it’s hard making progress, he said, in this political and economic environment. Not many big concrete, accomplishments to brag about. No projections on future climate or carbon policy. 

Yet, one passing remark gave me some hope: When Holdren took the job, he had expected much of his role to entail educating the president. However, Holdren found, as he put it, "When I go in to meet with the president, I almost never have to explain to him how the underlying technology works. We go immediately to the question of: ‘What should we do?’"

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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