In the eight years that John P. Holdren has been White House science adviser—longer than anyone else has held the job—the U.S. signed a climate accord 20 years in the making, began regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and embarked on an ambitious research effort to understand how the human brain works.
Will these and other accomplishments survive the administration of Donald J. Trump, who will become the 45th president of the United States on January 20?
To find out, Scientific American interviewed Holdren at the White House on December 14. As director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Holdren has been involved in just about every major decision the Obama administration has made regarding science and energy policy. Although he would not speculate on what the incoming Trump administration might do or comment on the transition, he talked about the future of U.S. science policy and the Obama administration’s record of the past eight years.
Holdren is optimistic that progress on climate will not be undone—even if the U.S. winds up ceding leadership on the issue to China. We also discussed the prospects for continued progress on brain science, a Mars mission, carbon-capture-and-storage technology and the administration’s mixed record on transparency, among other topics. Here are excerpts:
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Let’s talk about climate. Before the election you told Nature magazine, our sister publication, that you were optimistic that regulations put in place by the Obama administration would stay in place. Are you still optimistic?
What I'm most optimistic about is that progress is being driven by fundamental forces that are independent of government policy. One is the growing evidence of damage from climate change that people are experiencing all around the world. People are getting it.
The cost of dealing with [climate] is also declining. Renewables have gotten extraordinarily cheap, which is one of the reasons we have 30 times more electricity generation from photovoltaics today than we did in 2008, the reason we have almost three and a half times wind generation than we did in 2008, the reason natural gas has replaced a substantial amount of our coal-fired electricity generation. It’s not regulation. These alternatives are attractive economically. They’re being embraced.
We’re going to see continued action all around the world, and this is not just understood in the United States. It's understood in China. You may have noticed that the Chinese deputy foreign minister said at [recent climate talks in] Marrakesh, “China's not doing this because somebody asked us to. We're doing it because we want to, because we know we need to.” I've been going to China since 1984, meeting with Chinese leaders the whole time. I have seen the transformation in the understanding of Chinese leaders about the reality of climate change, the damage it’s already doing in China. Absolutely no question that they are sincere in their efforts, in their desire to address climate change
If the United States were to step back from its leadership position in climate change, China would happily assume the mantle. We should want to stay in the leadership of the global battle against climate change.
What would it look like to have China take the lead on climate?
China has obviously been increasingly trying to position itself as a leader in everything. This would be one more domain. They’re ramping up their efforts in trade agreements in the region. They are ramping up their efforts in industrial technology and innovation. They want to become leaders in innovation. They want to become leaders in science. They’ll take the leadership in everything that they can get, and you can’t blame them. China is a great nation. They want to be a greater nation. We’re a great nation. We want to be a greater nation. We should not be voluntarily surrendering leadership in the matter of major global challenges.
Why would this matter for most people in the United States?
I don’t think it matters to most people. It does matter to people who follow international affairs and people who make decisions on behalf of government because alignments change, allegiances change—ultimately, maybe alliances change with leadership on major global issues.
From the standpoint of climate change, coal is the last fuel we should turn to. The president-elect promised during the campaign to bring coal back. How do you reconcile this?
Coal is certainly the worst of the conventional fossil fuels in the amount of carbon dioxide it releases per unit of energy that it provides. What we've seen is a decline in coal not just because people are worried about CO2. We've seen a decline in coal because coal-fired power plants are more expensive than [natural] gas–fired power plants and, increasingly, even economically uncompetitive versus the renewables. So you’re seeing renewables and natural gas cut into coal, and you get a side benefit because coal’s conventional pollutants are quite nasty—particulate pollution, oxides of sulfur, mercury and so on.
Wouldn’t coal plants be more economical if regulations were loosened?
They would be less expensive if you didn't have to control the particulate matter, and the sulfur oxide and so on. No question about it. But they would still be more expensive than natural gas plants because it is just more complicated to burn coal. It's just a nasty, difficult fuel.
But of course, the cost of containing the conventional pollution from coal-fired power plants adds to the total cost, and I don't think anyone who has ever breathed the air in Beijing would recommend backing off of those regulations in the United States. Americans do value clean air. I don’t think anybody would want to walk that back.
For the long-term future of coal, the prospects rest in development of technology to capture and sequester away from the atmosphere the carbon dioxide that coal-burning power plants would otherwise release.
What is the status of “carbon-capture-and-storage” technology. Is it viable?
It's not economic today. Again, coal-fired power plants are already not competitive in many parts of the country. That’s why you see states like Texas building lots of windmills. If you had to capture and sequester the carbon, they’d be even less competitive. Right now, the technologies that have been demonstrated for doing that would probably increase the cost of generation at the power plant in the range of 30 to 60 percent.
We should be interested ultimately in carbon capture and sequestration for natural gas plants as well. Although [natural gas] is much less polluting than coal, it’s still too polluting for the low-carbon future that we need to bring the consequences of climate change under some degree of control.
Have we been investing enough in research on carbon-capture-and-storage technology?
We should be spending three to four times as much on energy research and development overall as we've been spending. Every major study of energy R&D in relation to the magnitude of the challenges, the size of the opportunities, the important possibilities that we’re not pursuing for lack of money, concludes that we should be spending much more. That's part of the motivation behind the Mission Innovation initiative that Pres. Obama, with 19 other leaders, launched at the beginning of the Paris conference, in which these 20 countries committed to double their investments in clean energy R&D over the next five years.
You also told Nature back in July that the Obama administration had been scaling back on human spaceflight to revitalize planetary science, robotic missions and the like.
Well, that's not quite what I said. When we came into office, we were confronted with a situation where the cost of a particular human space exploration program, the Constellation program that our predecessors had put into place, was basically siphoning money out of all of the other missions that NASA has responsibility for. Earth observations were suffering, robotic missions were suffering, space telescopes were suffering, aeronautics was suffering.
The Augustine Committee report found the Constellation program per se—not human exploration but the Constellation program—to be unexecutable. It could not do what it was supposed to do in terms of delivering capabilities on any reasonable timescale. It was many years behind schedule. It was three to four times over budget.
We extended the International Space Station program, which is an extremely important test bed for both science and technology related to human space exploration. Under the previous plan the International Space Station would have been crashed into the ocean in 2016, this year, in order to pay for a rocket whose principal mission was to take astronauts to the International Space Station.
We didn't step back from the goal of human space exploration but we said we're not going to get there on this path because it’s unaffordable. That led to a big negotiation with Congress in which we ended up putting more money into big rockets and multipurpose crew capsules than we had wanted at the time—less money than Congress wanted, but [we put] more money into Earth observation advanced technology.
Why did we abandon the goal of building a moon base?
It was the Augustine Commission’s vision and our vision that the next important goal is Mars and not going back to the surface of the moon. This was very controversial with many members of Congress who think we have to go back to the surface of the moon. The Chinese are going to get there. Indians are going to get there. To which my answer was, “When the Chinese get there, I'll congratulate them for getting them 50 years after we did.”
The other thing is, going back to the surface of the moon and setting up a base there, which some people in Congress want to do, would cost between $60 billion and $80 billion.
But wouldn’t the moon have been a stepping-stone to Mars?
No. You have to pay to get out of the moon's gravity if you're on the surface of the moon, and that makes it much harder to send a lot of stuff to Mars than sending it from one of the Lagrangian points, for example. So [the Augustine Commission] recommended that we set up operations in the vicinity of the moon, and that's what we have proposed to do. [We’re doing that] as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where we set up operation in a stable orbit in the vicinity to the moon and we bring a big chunk of an asteroid there for astronauts to examine and manipulate. And in the process, by the way, we learn some things about how to affect the trajectories of asteroids that might be helpful someday when we need to prove we’re smarter than the dinosaurs because a big asteroid is on a collision course.
That's not going to be easy.
It's not going to be easy, but it is a much more important thing to do than going back 50 years later and doing something we did before. It's a new capability.
Why not outsource NASA’s Mars program to Elon Musk?
We are outsourcing to Elon Musk and other private operators that transport our cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit. If Elon Musk develops capabilities that are attractive in respect to going to Mars, we’ll partner with Elon Musk. Mars is much too big a project for individual countries to be competing with each other to do it—and similarly, it’s too big a project for the government and the private sector to be competing to do it. Going to Mars is going to be a partnership.
We've had a great run of solar system probes—Cassini, New Horizons, etcetera—but they are getting long in the tooth and there aren’t a lot of new probes coming up behind them.
There are a few more. They’re not the biggest flagship missions coming along, because the money’s not there. The way I described NASA when I came into office is that NASA is 20 pounds of programs in a 10-pound budget, and fundamentally what we are asking NASA to do is a lot. Again, they’ve got aeronautics, for heaven’s sake—it’s still in their name, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
How do we fix that?
We have been fiscally too conservative. This country could afford a bigger NASA budget to meet our aspirations. We should have had it, but we couldn't get it out of the Congress. The Augustine Commission said that the human space exploration program we need would require about a $3-billion-a-year increase in the NASA budget—not to continue Constellation but to do a sensible set of things. It wasn't forthcoming. So we crafted the best program we could craft for a billion extra a year, which is what we had reason to believe we could get out of the Congress. We haven't in the end even gotten that, so NASA is squeezed.
There are folks who are now saying, “Well, NASA should give up the Earth observation mission.” That’s crazy. NASA's mission has always included looking down as well as looking up. There’s nobody in the government that can do what NASA can do in terms of Earth observation. Part of the problem is there are some folks who confuse Earth observation with endorsement of a particular set of climate policies that they don't like.
But climate is a political issue.
There are climate change policies that we could embrace that would be all about the market: put a tax on carbon, do a cap-and-trade system…. It is just wrong to suppose that understanding what's happening dictates a particular approach to dealing with it.
We need those Earth observations even if climate were not changing. We need them to understand tsunamis. We need them to understand volcano explosions. We need them to understand earthquakes. We need them to understand what we're doing to groundwater. We need them to understand how agriculture is working and we need them, of course, to forecast weather and to predict hurricanes. Even if you didn’t think climate was changing, you should want those Earth observations. They’re immensely valuable to the economy, to public health and safety, to disaster response.
Why isn’t climate a bipartisan issue? How did it become so politicized?
There are fundamentally two reasons. One is that in the run-up to 2000 the Republicans understood that Al Gore was going to be the Democratic candidate and climate was his signature issue. So they thought if climate is going to be the signature issue of our opponent, we're going to be against it for political reasons.
A second thing is this phenomenon of convincing oneself that if the public ever accepts the reality of what climate change is about and what it's doing to us, they will embrace a regulatory regime which Republicans would find offensive. That's a misperception. There are a lot of ways to skin the cat in terms of climate policy. The idea that the solution is to keep the public from understanding what's really happening or from simply denying what's really happening as part of such a project, it's just misguided.
At the beginning of his first term, Pres. Obama promised “unprecedented openness in government.” By many accounts, that promise is unmet. The government has been better about releasing data but not in giving journalists access to experts. Also, we investigated the FDA and found systematic efforts to manipulate the press.
I would say that's a glass that is both half empty and half full.
It has turned out to be a big challenge. The president—very early in his administration, first couple of months—issued a couple of executive orders and presidential memoranda about openness and transparency, and I got tasked and OSTP got tasked with making them real—and we have worked very hard on that. We now have scientific integrity policies and openness policies all across the departments and agencies. You have to ask how well are they following those policies. In some cases it’s like pulling teeth because there always is a tension between the way a department or agency wants to present itself to the world and total transparency.
So Obama essentially ran into reality?
Sure. Where we’ve succeeded, first, we have all of those policies in place and they’re now available and they’re public. So among other things, civil society and journalists can look and say, “Here's your policy, and it’s not what you're doing. Let's talk about this.” So you've got something to work with because there is a policy.
Second, the policies are in substantial measure being observed, certainly more than those kinds of things were even considered in the way agencies conducted themselves previously.
Third, in terms of data, it’s been extraordinary. There have now been hundreds of thousands of data sets made available that were never available before.
I wouldn’t argue that we have gotten as much done as we wish, but we have gotten a lot done. So [the glass is] half full but it’s also half empty—I agree.
The Obama administration has championed initiatives to create a genomic database of one million people and digitize information on energy use from individual citizens. In light of cybersecurity threats, is this a good idea?
Our view continues to be that there are benefits from big data that justify taking some risks.
There are always, of course, risks with anything you do. The question is always: What’s the balance between potential benefits and potential downsides? We think a lot of attention needs to be paid to minimizing the downsides. There has been, at this point, I would say eight years of effort has gone into this particular question in working on and thinking about the rules just relating to patient data.
How do you define the appropriate set of restrictions on the uses of patient data? What kind of consent do you need? Is there such a thing as broad consent where a patient can say, “You can use my data for anything you want forever without checking with me again,” as opposed to specific consent to do a particular thing at a particular time with your data. And there are questions as genomic technology gets better and cheaper, there are questions about the identifiability of information. You may say, “Oh, this is all anonymized,” but advancing technologies can de-anonymize it, and so we're struggling with all of that.
We think this can revolutionize medicine. The amount that we can learn about that is extraordinary and there's already such great evidence of benefit. Just through understanding a relatively small number of genes that produce very high propensity for certain kinds of cancers has saved a lot of lives by enabling people to look for those cancers early enough to get them out.
Obama’s BRAIN Initiative has by most accounts been successful so far. What would you like to see happen going forward? Have you set it up so it will survive the next administration?
The theme of partnerships has been enormously important for this administration: partnerships across agencies, partnerships across sectors—public sector, private sector, academic sector, civil society sector. Our STEM education initiatives have exploited that. Our advanced manufacturing initiatives, our clean-energy initiatives and our biomedical initiatives. Combatting antibiotic resistance is another important one, Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN Initiative.
When we set [the BRAIN Initiative] up, we basically did a lot of groundwork. My colleague, Tom Kalil, the deputy director of OSTP, was a major force in doing this reaching out across the biomedical community and talking to folks in industry, talking to the folks in engineering developing the sensors, talking to folks in academia, talking across the government agency. We got DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], we got NSF [National Science Foundation], we got NIH [National Institutes of Health], we got DoE [Department of Energy], with their incredible computing capabilities better than anybody's, all working together on this.
You’ve got a tremendous community of folks who are seeing this progress. They're seeing it in the biomedical community, in the computing community, in all the pieces of this that come together. People are seeing progress and the hope of more, and so you talked about constituencies before. There’s going to be very strong constituency for keeping this going.
And if anything is a bipartisan issue, it’s health. I've had some contentious hearings in my service for the last eight years. One hearing that was not contentious was the hearing before the House commerce, justice and science Appropriations Subcommittee on the BRAIN Initiative. That hearing was a love fest.
What was the most contentious hearing you’ve had?
Some of the climate hearings, such as the Q&A of my September 2014 testimony before the House Science Committee. Jon Stewart found it so entertaining he made a 10-minute segment about it.
What are you going to do after January 20?
I haven’t had time to think about it.