Holdren Vows to Maintain the Integrity of Science

D.C. Science / by Robert Koenig /

President Barack Obama's director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy faces limited criticism at confirmation hearing.

Faced with daunting challenges ranging from economic turmoil to global climate change, President Barack Obama’s administration plans to “play a crucial role” in promoting policies aimed at deploying science and technology in ways that will “turn those challenges into opportunities,” John P. Holdren told a U.S. Senate committee Thursday.

Holdren, appearing before the mostly supportive Senate Commerce Committee in his confirmation hearing to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in his statement that “we are on the verge of huge advances” in fields such as computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology and green technology. He also predicted “remarkable new discoveries about the universe, about how our planet and its living systems work, and about how we learn, think, and remember.”

Responding to questions, Holdren — until recently at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Woods Hole Research Center — pledged to maintain the integrity of science in the Obama administration, offering “the best assessments science can offer” on complex issues such as climate change. “The scientific facts are never everything in policy making, but they are something — they are relevant to the policy decisions being made.”

While Holdren conceded that scientific opinion is not monolithic on climate change, he said policy-makers should accept the evaluation of the “center of gravity of scientific opinion” which he said is that “climate change is real, it’s accelerating, it is caused in substantial part by human activities, it is dangerous. and it is getting more so.” Holdren said the administration’s goal of sharply reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in the hope of blunting the impact of climate change “is going to be a long slog” that will require the cooperation of China, India, and other rapidly developing nations.

Judging by the questions posed by senators at the confirmation hearing — including sharply negative questions and comments by conservative Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana about several of Holdren’s past comments about climate change and population control — Holdren will be spending much of his time on climate change, energy, and space issues.

Responding to questions from senators who want to strengthen the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Holdren said he would make it a priority to reactivate the White House Space Council with the goal of highlighting the importance of space programs and research. He also said the administration will follow thorough on Obama’s pledge to name a new White House Chief Technology Officer, who will help deal with major technology issues in coordination with Holdren staff and the OSTP.

“Development of new technologies and providing incentives for their widespread adoption will be particularly crucial at the demanding intersection of energy, national security, and climate change,” Holdren said. He said “the utmost in collaboration” will be required to come up with ways to provide reliable and affordable energy while at the same time addressing the dangers of climate change as well as overdependence on oil.

At the same hearing, marine biologist Jane Lubchenco — nominated to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service — spent much of her time handling questions about weather and climate issues. Lubchenco announced that she would work to create a new National Climate Service and also to bolster research into ways to influence weather. She said the new Climate Service — similar in structure to the National Weather Service — would “synthesize the specific data on climate change and create products and services that can be used by the public to guide important decisions such as where to build a road or wind turbines.”

The Commerce Committee’s chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., predicted that both Holdren and Lubchenco would be approved easily by the full Senate this week.

Originally published February 13, 2009

Tags climate governance leadership policy politics

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