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Climate Change Gets a Voice

UPDATED: President-elect reportedly selects physicist John Holdren as his consigliere on science.
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Barack Obama has settled on his science adviser, the journal Sciencereported Thursday afternoon on its Web site, and his pick of a respected — and outspoken — climate and energy expert may further signal a stronger voice for science in the next administration.

Physicist John Holdren, who had been an adviser to the Obama campaign, is the director of the program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He holds one very staunch position at odds with policies of the George W. Bush administration over the last eight years.
“The scientific evidence is clear,” Holdren said in his presidential address to the AAAS in February 2007. “Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

Science advocates have been calling for Obama to appoint a strong candidate to the position and elevate the role of science in government decision making after criticism that the Bush administration misused, ignored and distorted science on issues ranging from climate chance to birth control.

In a statement Thursday on the AAAS Web site, CEO Alan Leshner called Holdren an “enlightened” appointment.

“John Holdren’s expertise spans so many issues of great concern at this point in history — climate change, energy and energy technology, nuclear proliferation,” Leshner said. “He is widely respected in the United States and around the world as a science leader."

Oregon State professor Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and conservationist, has meanwhile been tapped to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she will bring another critical voice on climate change to the agency that conducts much of the federal government's research on the topic.

Her appointment, like Holdren, signals what will likely be a dramatic attitude shift in Washington toward climate change, a problem Lubochenco has called "a crisis of unprecedented complexity, proportions and consequences."

Physicists are also celebrating the second high-profile one of their own nominated by Obama in the last week. Pending confirmation, Holdren will join Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, Obama’s pick to head the Department of Energy.

Science suggested the president-elect may have a crowded team of energy experts after he last week nominated former EPA chief Carol Browner to fill a newly created role coordinating energy policy within the White House. The president’s science adviser historically doubles as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“OSTP will have to be redefined in relation to these other centers of formulating policy,” current science adviser John Marburger told Science.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which produced a series of reports documenting political meddling with government scientists during the Bush era, in contrast praised Obama's picks of Holdren, Lubchenco and Chu "a science dream team."

"They all are among the top in their fields and understand the critical role that science must play in informing policy decisions," said Peter Frumhoff, UCS director of science and policy.

Marburger has been criticized as a largely ineffectual science adviser — “You had lots of cases of unfortunate situations where it looked like the science adviser had not been that involved in forming policy and then had to defend it,” science writer Chris Mooney said. “That probably describes Marburger.”

Marburger’s title was bumped under the Bush administration from “special assistant to the president for science and technology” to “science adviser” — a shift many in the scientific community took as a slight — and he wasn’t nominated for the position until five months into Bush’s presidency.

Several groups had urged Obama to identify his nominee before the inauguration, in keeping with the rest of his cabinet-level announcements, to send a sign that he takes the position — and science in general — seriously. As of Thursday afternoon, Obama’s transition team had not formally announced Holdren’s appointment, so word wasn’t released yet of exactly what Holdren’s title will be.

Holdren's title, according to a statement by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, will be "Assistant to the President for Science and Technology."