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Obama's Science Adviser on Science in the First Year of the Trump Administration

John Holdren and others are still at work, trying to influence federal science policy.
President Obama meets with John Holdren, Office of Science and Technology Policy, in the Oval Office on March 9th, 2009.

President Obama meets with John Holdren, Office of Science and Technology Policy, in the Oval Office on March 9th, 2009.

More than a year after his tenure at the White House ended, former presidential science adviser John Holdren considers himself "unleashed." No longer a government employee, he's frank about his opinions on the current government—and unafraid to bring politics into conversations about science.

"He is a lying, bigoted, misogynistic egotist and a bully who has undermined important aspects of American democracy," Holdren said of President Donald Trump during an interview with Pacific Standard about science policy. "The man is, by personality and character, the most abominable president in United States history, and we need to get rid of him."

Now a professor at Harvard University, Holdren led the Office of Science and Technology Policy—an executive-branch group housed next door to the White House—for eight years. He and his staff advised President Barack Obama on issues such as climate change, clean energy, and how to respond to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Trump has since undone many of the Obama administration's signature climate policies. Holdren would like to see Trump impeached, or, barring that, a Democratic takeover of open seats in Congress.

Pacific Standard spoke with Holdren in Washington, D.C., about his take on the big science-related issues in the news and his continuing efforts to influence science policy-making on the Hill.


You live now in Cape Cod, but visit Washington every few weeks. What are you doing here?

I am involved in a number of efforts here to push back on some of the indignities that the Trump administration has inflicted on the role of government in science, technology, and innovation.

I'm also involved in an effort that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) has organized, with a lot of the most prominent climate scientists in the U.S., to push back on misstatements and misguided policies relating to climate change. We organize rebuttals to public misstatements, [which are published] in newspapers or prominent blogs. And we talk to members of Congress about legislation: for example, the so-called transparency proposition [at the Environmental Protection Agency], which is really a scam. All through the Obama administration, there were folks in Congress trying to inflict this on the EPA. Now, unfortunately, it is coming from the EPA. Essentially, I regard this proposal as an attempt to undermine the EPA's ability to set air pollution standards and other standards relating to toxics and public health under the guise of transparency.

What are some other goals you're hoping to achieve with Congress and the White House?

I don't think we can achieve much with the White House with its current principal occupant. There's not a lot of evidence that he responds to argument.

So the focus is very heavily on the Congress. It involves a particular effort to get leaders from the business community to talk to Congress because generally they're more influential with Congress than the academic community. A large fraction of leaders in the business community understand very clearly the symbiosis that has existed between government investments in basic and early-stage applied research and the private sector's ability to take the best developments that emerge from that research and convert them into societal benefit. One of the biggest errors in the Trump thinking is the idea that if the government spends less on basic and early-stage applied research, the private sector will just pick up the slack, but they won't. It's too risky, too uncertain.

Have you been successful?

So far, we're having mixed success in that the Congress has largely rejected the Trump administration proposals to cut the National Science Foundation, NIH [National Institutes of Health], and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. But so far, the fate of applied research on energy, climate change, and environmental science is unclear.

Even though Trump initially proposed to cut the NIH budget by 20 percent, the Congress did not go along because members of Congress understand that the NIH is in the business of curing diseases that afflict members of Congress and their families. But other areas of applied research, particularly those related to energy and climate change, are targets because these folks don't want to admit that we need more energy sources.

One of the things that some people are starting to comment on is that China is close to overtaking the United States in total annual R&D [research and development] expenditure. In a lot of areas of science and technology, it makes terrific sense to collaborate, but there are areas, related to national security for example, where we should not be so happy if the Chinese leap ahead.

Other journalists have reported that the Trump administration is considering stricter rules about which American labs Chinese science students can work in, as a way of preventing these scientists from later taking intellectual secrets home with them.

I think restricting what Chinese students can come here to study is a very slippery slope and a very bad idea. If certain domains of science and technology are all about military systems, defense technologies, they should be classified. If they're classified, Chinese students won't be able to work on them. If it's not classified, there shouldn't be any restriction on who should work on them. That's the way to make the distinction.

What's the biggest science issue you'll be keeping an eye on in the coming months?

One of the things that is particularly perverse about the Trump administration's policies is they have been cutting various forms of environmental monitoring, particularly monitoring of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. This is perverse because the canned statement that virtually all of Trump's cabinet nominees made in their confirmation hearings, when asked by Democrats what their stance on climate change was, was they admit[ted] that the climate is changing and human activity may have something to do with it, but we don't know how much and therefore it's premature to take action.

This is absolute nonsense. We do know what the human role is. Humans are responsible for essentially all of the observed climate change for the last 60 or 70 years, but if you did believe that we didn't know, you should be in favor of more measurement and monitoring to find out, not less. At the same time they're saying we don't know enough to take action, they're slashing the budget for knowing more.

Trump still has not appointed anyone to take over your old job. So who would be advising him on technical matters before his upcoming negotiation with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?

I think it would almost certainly be Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, who is a smart and capable person. What I'm not confident of is that Trump is listening.

You don't expect that the scientific facts are going to dominate every decision. Sometimes a president is going to make a decision that's not what his science adviser or even the whole scientific community would advise, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It could be for good reasons, politically or economically or legally. But what Obama understood very clearly is it's important for those decision-makers to know what science and technology have to say about this issue. So that if they decide that economic considerations or political considerations or legal considerations should hold sway, they still know what they're fooling with, and Trump just doesn't seem to care about that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.