President Obama has restored science to its rightful place in the White House, says John Holdren, Obama’s senior science advisor.
“Science is again where it should be,” he told an audience of 200 as part of a lecture series at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. on Wednesday, although he warned that the president’s initiatives are threatened by a Congress hesitant to support them.
Holdren, who leads the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and co-chairs the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST), told the crowd that he has helped Obama revitalize several science programs that lay dormant under the previous administration. These programs, he says, are integral to securing the U.S.’s position at the forefront of global innovation on climate change, biomedicine and, of course, space. He has had less success, however, ensuring funding for new research projects, particularly those that are experimental by nature. Citing a Congressional attempt to require research groups like the National Science Foundation (NSF) to prove that their projects are “in the national interest,” Holdren warns that the hurdle could have a freezing effect on critical scientific research.
As evidence of Obama’s achievements since entering the White House in March 2009, Holdren cites the resurrection of several international task forces aimed at addressing climate change, including a key partnership between the U.S. and some of the world’s other top polluters, such as China and India. The President has also jumpstarted another key partnership with China, the U.S.-China Innovation Dialogue, tasked with tackling cyber theft.
Under Obama, Holdren adds, PCAST has shifted priorities to give particular attention to climate change. In 2008, the President renamed the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP)—which under President Bush had focused primarily on research aimed at testing what he saw as theories of global warming—calling it the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and turned it into a comprehensive national research program charged with assessing, predicting and responding to climate change. “He really likes working with scientists,” says Holdren of President Obama, “And he understands why science is important for the national agenda.”
The President has also used the 2014 budget to highlight scientific priorities, from preserving funding for USGCRP to setting aside money to overhaul science and math education. But he’s run into many obstacles, says Holdren, primarily in the form of a Congress that has been resistant to funding science programs. “It’s not the budget we’d wanted in better times,” remarks Holdren. Nevertheless, Obama has earmarked funding that would prepare an additional 100,000 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers for grades K-12 and create a Master Teaching Corps of leading science and math instructors. The Master Teaching Corps, which was supposed to receive funding in 2012, was returned to the 2014 budget after Congress refused to appropriate the necessary funds.
Beyond revamping the way science and math are taught in American schools, the President has taken pains to broadcast the importance of science to young people, Holdren says, noting that Obama has used the presidential pulpit to “talk more about science” and to increase the visibility of researchers and innovators by inviting them to such events as the three White House science fairs Obama has already overseen. “The President always says, if we bring football stars to the White House, we should certainly be bringing scientists.”
Interrupted by audience members complaining about the President’s cuts to funding for space exploration, Holdren replied that the NASA of the previous administration was badly managed and poorly funded. “The NASA we inherited was hopelessly behind schedule,” he said. He also added that Obama has taken steps to re-balance the administration’s space policy, including preserving $1 billion in funds (just a 0.8 percent cut) for NASA and continuing to fund Mars Curiosity, an SUV-sized robotic rover launched in 2011 whose mission Obama extended indefinitely in December 2012.