Energy Policy Expert to be Tapped for US Science Adviser

Harvard's John P. Holdren to be named to Obama's top science post.

December 19, 2008, 5:59 PM

Dec. 19, 2008— -- Barack Obama's growing all-star science team is poised to pick up another heavy hitter. As first reported in the blog ScienceInsider, the president-elect will nominate John P Holdren of Harvard University to be his science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

On paper, Holdren is not exactly a radical departure from previous holders of the office. A physicist with expertise in nuclear arms control, he was a member of President Bill Clinton's science and technology advisory committee and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But as a major player in global environmental and energy policy - he is director of Harvard's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program as well as of the Woods Hole Research Center, Holdren brings a different set of priorities and a more outspoken personality to a position that has been widely regarded as in decline during the Bush administration.

"He could add a new dimension to the role," says David Guston, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University in Tempe.

When combined with the recent nomination of Nobel laureate Steven Chu as energy secretary and former EPA head Carol Browner in the newly created role of assistant to the president for energy and climate change, the choice of Holdren as science adviser leaves no doubt that Obama intends to make climate change a high priority when he takes office next month.

In fact, with so many high-profile nominees in his inner circle with expertise in energy and environmental policy, it remains to be seen which voice will have the biggest influence on the new president.

"There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen now," says Roger Pielke Jr, of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. "It makes me curious to see how the Obama administration is going to manage all of these high-profile personalities."

Institutionally, Holdren will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to play the dominant role in shaping key science policy decisions. This is because, unlike many other cabinet-level positions, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy can be called on to testify before Congress, which would tend to make a president reluctant to share politically sensitive information with his science adviser.

And unlike many jobs in the president's inner circle, the science adviser does not administer a large budget or control any government agencies. On the other hand, the office has direct input into setting priorities and budget allocations for science and technology activities across the federal government.

There is one indication that under Holdren the position of science adviser will enjoy an elevated standing in the White House. According to an announcement released from Harvard, Holdren will be named Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. The "assistant" title, which generally indicates a closer relationship to the president, has not always been bestowed on science advisers.