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Holdren lauds Obama’s science and technology accomplishments

6 May 2016
The president has been an unrelenting supporter of science throughout his two terms, his science adviser asserts.

The Obama administration has initiated an unprecedented array of new programs in science, technology, and science education, said presidential science adviser John Holdren. Yet much remains to be done to attract more women and minorities to scientific and engineering careers, to respond and adapt to climate change, and to educate the public and policymakers on the importance of science, technology, and innovation (ST&I) to society, Holdren acknowledged as he recapped his seven years in office.

“There has never been anything like this array of initiatives in science, technology, and innovation in the history of the White House, I think,” Holdren told the annual science policy forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on 14 April.

Topping Holdren’s list of Obama’s accomplishments are a range of programs initiated to help improve science education. They include Educate to Innovate, which has attracted more than $1 billion in philanthropic and private-sector contributions for improving the quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching at the K–12 level. Launched in 2011, the 100Kin10 initiative is halfway to its 10-year target of training 100 000 new science teachers. The STEM Inclusion Initiative aims to increase the representation of women and underrepresented minorities who are “inspired, mentored, and prepared for success,” Holdren said. And a STEM Master Teacher Corps recognizes exceptional teachers with $20 000 annual stipends.

Presidential science adviser John Holdren gives a talk in 2012. (Image credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL)

Presidential science adviser John Holdren gives a talk in 2012. (Image credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL)

Recognizing that computer science “has become as fundamental as the traditional 3 Rs,” Holdren said, Obama in January announced the Computer Science for All program to expand the teaching of computer science at the K–12 level. The president has included $4.1 billion in his fiscal year 2017 budget request for that program.

Holdren touted bureaucratic changes, including the restoration of his own science adviser position to the status of assistant to the president. It’s a rank that supposedly provides the holder with direct access to the Oval Office. He noted that his predecessor, the late John Marburger, had a status one notch below that during the George W. Bush years. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren also heads, now has a record-high 135 staff members. The number of associate directors of OSTP, which numbered just two during the preceding administration, has been restored to four. But three of those four positions—environment and energy, national security and international affairs, and technology—are presently vacant. Associate directors require Senate confirmation.

The president has used his bully pulpit and the White House itself to promote ST&I, Holdren continued. Obama has mentioned science in both inaugural speeches and every State of the Union address. He also hosted science fairs at the White House, the sixth of which, held in April, was attended by 130 high school students.

Holdren credited Obama with leading the effort that culminated in the December 2015 climate change agreement signed by 195 nations in Paris. The agreement, Holdren said, was predicated on the bilateral accord in which China committed to peaking its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. “We, who were driving that, were surprised that we actually got so much of what we wanted,” he said. The Mission Innovation initiative, also announced in Paris, commits 20 nations to doubling their clean energy R&D over five years; Obama’s FY 2017 budget includes a 20% increase to those programs.

But the agenda is unfinished, Holdren admitted, partly due to inadequate federal and private-sector funding. “People say the amount that should be spent on R&D is never answerable, and in some sense that is true,” he said. “But I suggest that if you look at the challenges and opportunities, and the extent to which very high-leverage opportunities are going unaddressed for lack of funding, you will conclude that we are certainly spending too little.”

Holdren continued: “The importance of basic research has astonishingly to me become controversial in some quarters in the Congress, where some folks are saying, ‘Well, yes, we need to put more money [into] NIH [the National Institutes of Heath] to cure diseases that afflict members of Congress, but we should maybe take the money out of NSF’s basic [research] budget in order to do that.’”

Those attitudes are due to “inadequate understanding of how important ST&I are to our economy, to our quality of life, and to our national security that until we lift that level of public understanding, we won’t have the public support for the kind of increases by the federal government that would be warranted,” he said.

By one commonly cited metric, the percentage of GDP devoted to R&D, the US’s 2.8% fraction has fallen short of Obama’s 3% goal. “I would argue that is not the president’s fault,” Holdren said. “It’s the constraints imposed on overall spending by Congress.”

Holdren said it “approaches scandalous” that NIH is funding only one of three meritorious grant proposals. With a $32 billion budget, NIH accounts for roughly half of spending on nondefense basic research. A similarly small fraction of NSF, Department of Energy Office of Science, and Defense Department grant proposals receive funding, he noted.

Globally, Holdren said, “We still have a lot to do in ensuring sufficient, safe, secure, sustainable, and affordable food, water, and energy for all, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This remains an immense challenge and it will be so for decades to come.”

Minimizing the harm resulting from climate change impacts that are no longer avoidable will require huge investments in mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, Holdren said. More needs to be done to protect the planet from killer asteroids, he added. Although the chances of one striking Earth are remote, “something that has a once-in-1000-year chance doesn’t mean we’ll wait 1000 years until it happens.”

Holdren predicted that some science and technology initiatives, particularly those in the biomedical research arena and the National Strategic Computing Initiative, will outlive the administration no matter who is elected as the next president. More contentious are clean-energy programs, for which Republican-controlled Congresses have routinely slashed administration budget requests.

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