White House Science Advisor

That sigh of relief emanating from laboratories around the world is the sound of scientists reacting to reports that president-elect Obama will name physicist John Holdren his science adviser. Holdren has a resume longer than your arm (he is Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and former president, and chairman of the board of American Association for the Advancement of Science), but what he will bring to the table is an unflinching commitment to evidence-based policy making.

That, of course, has been in short supply over the last 8 years, as I detailed in Newsweek's recent election issue. Whether it was programs on sex education (abstinence only! who cares if that doesn't reduce teen pregnancy, STDs or achieve other outcomes you'd think would be one of the purposes of sex ed), or policies on endangered species or climate change or stem cells or . . . (the list goes on), the Bush Administration seemed to have never met a fact it wasn't perfectly content to dismiss.

Climate change is arguably the most egregious example, and on this issue Holdren has been a leading voice for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as adapting to the inevitable changes already locked into the climate system. Among the themes he has reiterated in public as well as private:

  • "Global warming" is a misleading term because it suggests something "uniform, gradual, benign," Holdren says. "What is happening is nonuniform, rapid and damaging."
  • Global climate change is already "causing serious harm to human well-being in many places around the world," including increased floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and severe tropical storms, plus, "probably, more tropical disease."
  • And Holdren is clear on what this means for policy: "Continued 'business as usual' [in terms of carbon dioxide emissions] in fossil-fuel burning and deforestation will lead to much greater disruption and . . . soon: more of the above plus falling crop production, loss of coral reefs, disruption of ocean fisheries, accelerating sea-level rise."

Holdren is known as the consummate insider, a quiet-spoken scientist who does impeccable work. One anecdote from years ago: Holdren co-authored a number of books and papers on population and other environmental issues with Paul Ehrlich, the fiery Stanford University biologist best known for his Cassandra-esque book The Population Bomb. To many in the business community and on the political right, Ehrlich is Satan incarnate. A friend once asked Holdren how it felt to be associated with Ehrlich--whether he, too, caught flak from anti-environmentalists and those who denied the threat of the population explosion. No, Holdren answered, it actually has never been a problem: whenever people attack our work, he said, it's always aimed at 'Ehrlich and that other guy.'"

If Holdren becomes Obama's science advisor, at a time when science issues drive so many aspects of controversial public policies, he's not going to be "that other guy" much longer.

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