Scientific American executive editor Fred Guterl talks with Pres. Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, about climate science, space travel, the issue of reproducibility in science, the brain initiative and more.
Scientific American executive editor Fred Guterl talks with Pres. Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, about climate science, space travel, the issue of reproducibility in science, the brain initiative and more.
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on January 19, 2017. I’m Steve Mirsky. In mid-December, Scientific American executive editor Fred Guterl had a chance to sit down with President Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, who's about to leave office. They had a far-ranging conversation that covered climate science, space travel, the issue of reproducibility in science, the BRAIN Initiative, and more. The 32 minutes that follow is an edited version of their discussion.
Fred Guterl: Let's talk about climate. You gave an interview with my colleagues at Nature Magazine in July, and you were saying that you were pretty optimistic that climate regulations that you've put in place would stay in place. Are you still optimistic?
John Holdren: Well, what I'm most optimistic about in the climate domain is that I think the progress that we're making in the United States and around the world is being driven by two fundamental forces that are actually independent policy. And one of those forces is the growing evidence of damage from climate change that people are experiencing all around the world. That is, there are more longer and more intense heat waves, more longer and more intense droughts, more torrential downpours and associated flooding, coasting erosion from sea level rise, wildfires increasing in annual area burned. In the far north, even the tundra is now burning, which never did before.
The consequences of acidification of the ocean in combination with oxygen depletion and heating are showing in unprecedented levels of coral bleaching. The corals are the second-biggest reservoir of biodiversity on the planet. I mean, people are just coming to understand that not only is climate change real, and caused overwhelmingly by human activity, but it's already doing harm. It's already harming economies, health, lives, safety, ecosystems. People are getting it.
The second force is that the cost of dealing with it is declining. Renewables have gotten extraordinarily cheaper, which is one of the reasons we have 30 times more electricity generation from photovoltaic today than we did in 2008. The reason we have almost three and a half times more wind generation than we did in 2008, the reason natural gas has replaced a substantial amount of our coal-fired electricity generation is not regulation. It is the fact that market forces are working. These alternatives are attractive economically.
They're being embraced. And so, if the evidence of the need to act keeps growing, and the cost of acting keeps shrinking, 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 Marrakech, "China's not doing this 'cause somebody asked us to.
We're doing it because we want to. Because we know we need to."
Guterl: How do you reconcile a come-back for coal, which is a possibility now, with doing what we need to do with climate?
Holdren: Now, first of all, coal is certainly the worst of the conventional fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – in the amount of carbon dioxide it releases per unit of energy that it provides. For a long time, worldwide, coal and oil were tied for first in total global CO2 emissions because there was more total energy coming from oil than from coal, and so the fact that coal yields more per unit of energy, it all evened out and they were about the same. It was about 40/40/20 for a long time, 40 percent coal, 40 percent oil, 20 percent natural gas. What we've seen is a decline in coal, not just because people are worried about CO2. Again, we've seen a decline in coal because coal-fired power plants are more expensive than gas-fired power plants, and increasingly even economically uncompetitive versus the renewables.
And so you're seeing renewables and natural gas cut into coal. Yet, a side benefit, because coal's conventional pollutants are quite nasty – particulate pollution, oxides of sulfur, mercury, and so on –
Guterl: Are coal plants expensive because of regulations on them? Would they be less expensive if – ?
Holdren: 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. I mean, Americans do value clean air, and a lot of progress has been made on clean air.
I don't think anybody would wanna walk that back. But when people talk about coal coming back, I think they're not really grasping the market reality. Coal's not gonna come back, because it's not gonna be competitive. We used to get 50 percent of our electricity from coal. Now we're probably getting 35 percent from coal.
So a very significant source of electricity. What we've done is shut down some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants, and I hope some of the least efficient, most polluting mines. That process will continue. For the long-term future of coal, the prospects rest on development of technology to capture and sequester away from the atmosphere the carbon dioxide.
Guterl: What is the status of that technology, in terms of viability.
Holdren: It's not economic today. Coal-fired power plants are already not competitive in many parts of the country. And that's why you see even states like Texas building lots of windmills. But if you had to capture and sequester the carbon, they'd be even less competitive. Of course, that is a matter of internalizing the social cost.
We need further advances in that technology to get the cost down, and right now. I mean, right now, 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. Now, that isn't the same as the delivery cost, because the cost of generation at the power plant is about half of the delivered cost, because of transmission and distribution adds to it. But it's still a substantial increase. And, by the way, we should be interested ultimately in carbon capture and sequestration for natural gas plants as well.
Because ultimately natural gas, although it's much less polluting than coal, is still too polluting for the low-carbon future that we need to bring the consequence of climate change under some degree of control.
Guterl: Have we done enough in the last eight years, in terms of carbon capture and storage technology? Should we have invested more in it? Are we – We invest more in it in the future?
Holdren: I think that we should be spending in the range of 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. And that's part of the motivation behind the Mission Innovation Initiative that President 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. Y'know, I was involved in a study, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in the Clinton administration, on energy technology innovation, the challenges and the opportunities, many of the members of which were titans of industry.
The vice-president for research of Chevron, head of the Natural Gas Association, and so on. And that report recommended, without dissent, that the government should be doubling its investments in energy technology R&D over a short span of time. Everybody who looks at this concludes that, which just – We're, as the British say, penny wise and pound foolish when we save money by not doing more energy R&D.
Guterl: But we have national labs, which are the sort of –
Holdren: And that – Yeah, but when you look at the budgets, I mean, the national labs are, for the most part, supported by federal funds, so I'm counting what the national labs are doing in the federal government's effort. And we just need to be doing more, and that's true right across the board. We need to be doing more on advanced biofuels. We need to be doing more on carbon capture and sequestration.
We need to be doing more on advanced nuclear technologies. We need to be doing more on fusion, for heaven sakes. Y'know, fusion is not gonna generate a kilowatt hour before 2050, in my judgment. But –
Guterl: Hasn't fusion been 30 years away for the last 20 years?
Holdren: Well, it's actually been worse than that.
Holdren: When I started working on fusion in – I started working on fusion in 1966. I did my master's thesis at MIT in plasma physics. And at that time people thought we'd have fusion by 1980; it was only 14 years away. By 1980, it was 20 years away; it was gonna happen in 2000. By 2000, it was 35 years ago. So it's actually even worse than you say.
However, if you look at the pace of progress in fusion over most of that period, it's actually been faster than Moore's law, in terms of the performance of the devices. It would be nice to have a cleaner, safer, less proliferation-prone version of nuclear energy than fission. We may be able to master all of those problems for fission, but if fusion could be made to work, it would potentially be a very attractive energy source. And it's not so expensive to find out. My position is not that we know fusion will emerge as an attractive energy source by 2050 or 2075, but that it's worth putting some money on the bet.
Because we don't have all that many essentially inexhaustible energy options. There are the renewables. There are fission breeder reactors, which have many rather unattractive characteristics in terms of requiring what amounts to a plutonium economy, at least with current technology. Trafficking in large quantities of weapon-usable material. Fusion has a number of potential attractions.
The other thing that's kind of an interesting sidelight, although some readers of Scientific American might be interested in it: if we ever are going to go to the stars, the only propulsion that's gonna get us there is fusion. A fusion drive.
Guterl: Are we talking warp drive?
Holdren: No, I'm not talking warp drive. I'm just talking about going to the stars at some substantial fraction of the speed of light. And there is no other energy option that we know about that can provide enough energy –
Guterl: So fusion won't do it. _____ _____ fuel –
Holdren: – to take us to the stars. Fission won't do it.
Guterl: You'd need to bring a lot of fuel.
Holdren: Yeah. You need to bring too much fuel.
Guterl: And solar sails won't do it?
Holdren: Well, you run out.
Guterl: Would you get – ? You run out.
Holdren: You – As you go farther and farther from the sun, there's this little problem called 1/R2 that pretty quickly, if you're talking about interstellar travel, is just hopeless. So, y'know, I think we should be investing more in fusion. That's a personal view.
Guterl: Yeah. You told Nature, our sister publication, in July that the Obama administration had been scaling back on the human space flight aspect to revitalize planetary science, robotic missions, and things like that.
Holdren: Well, that's not quite what I said. Let me be very clear about that. When we came into office, we were confronted with a situation where the costs of a particular human space exploration program, the Constellation Program that our predecessors had put in place, were basically siphoning money out of basically all the other missions that NASA has responsibility for. So earth observations were suffering. Robotic missions were suffering.
Space telescopes were suffering. Aeronautics was suffering. And we asked a very distinguished commission, headed by Norm Augustine, Sally Ride – the late Sally Ride – and the chairman of the MIT aero department were the vice-chairs. We had a couple of former astronauts, a bunch of space industry people, and asked them to look at the future of just the human exploration program. What do we need? What are we doing? Can we get there?
That report, now known as 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 time scale. It was many years behind schedule. It was three to four times over budget, and as I say, it was sucking everything out of the other operations. That was going on in combination with the continued operation of the space shuttle, which was so expensive that, in combination with Constellation, you couldn't really afford to pay for developing the space shuttle's successor.
And the previous administration had correctly decided that the space shuttle should be phased out. We extended its life actually by a number of missions to get the most we could out of it. But then in 2011, we did end the shuttle program, and 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've been crashed into the ocean in 2016 in order to pay for a rocket whose principal mission was to take astronauts to the international space station. That's what the Augustine Commission meant by unexecutable.
So we recrafted that program. We didn't step back from the goal of human space exploration, but we said, "We're not gonna 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 more money into earth observation advanced technology. I said at the time, "We're putting the science back into rocket science."
Because NASA had been underinvesting in advanced technology for a long time, and we weren't going to have the kinds of technologies needed to actually go to Mars. I mean, it was the Augustine Commission's vision, and our vision, that the next important goal is Mars, not going back to the surface of the moon. And 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 gonna get there, Indians are gonna get there. To which my answer was, "When the Chinese get there, I'll congratulate them for getting their 50 years after we did."
And the president, in the speech he gave at the Kennedy Space Center in April, 2010, said, with Buzz Aldrin sitting in the front row, "We ought to go to Mars. We've already been to the surface of the moon." And he points to Buzz, who said, "Yeah, yeah, we did." The only thing about it 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.
Guterl: Not – That would not be a stepping stone to Mars?
Holdren: No, and the reason it's not a particularly good stepping stone to Mars – not nearly as good, as the Augustine Committee pointed out, as a base in a stable orbit in the vicinity of the moon – is, 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. And so they recommended that we set up operation in the vicinity of the moon. And that's what we, in this administration, have proposed to do, including as part of the asteroid redirect mission, where we set up operation in a stable orbit in the vicinity of 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.
Guterl: That's not gonna be easy.
Holdren: It's not gonna 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.
Guterl: Why not just outsource Mars to Elon Musk?
Holdren: Well, number one, we are outsourcing to Elon Musk and other private operators the transport of cargo and astronauts to low earth orbit. And if Elon Musk develops capabilities that are attractive in respect to going to Mars, we'll partner with Elon Musk, as we are in low earth orbit, in going to Mars. I think going to Mars is going to be a partnership. And the idea that we're gonna have a race to go to Mars, and that China and Europe and the United States and Russia are all gonna race to go to Mars – We're gonna have to do it together.
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 job for the government and the private sector to be competing to do it. It's gonna be done in partnership. NASA is squeezed, and there are folks who are now saying, "Well, y'know, NASA should be about the earth observation mission." I think that's crazy.
NASA's mission has always included looking down as well as looking up, and there's nobody in the government who can do what NASA can do, in terms of RIF observation. And I think part of the problem there is there are some folks who confuse earth observation with endorsement of a particular set of climate policies that they don't like.
Guterl: Why is that wrong?
Holdren: Well, first of all, it is true that earth observations are making important contributions to our understanding of how the climate is changing, and the impacts that it's doing. But understanding that does not determine your policy. There are climate change policies that we could embrace that would be all about the market: put a tax on carbon, have a grade system, deal with climate change in a market-based rather than a regulation-based approach. So it is just wrong to suppose that understanding what's happening dictates a particular approach to dealing with it. But secondly, we need those earth observations, even if climate were not changing.
We need 'em 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 ground water. We need them to understand how agriculture is working. And we need them, of course, to forecast weather and predict hurricanes.
And so, 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.
Guterl: Why has climate become so – such as political question? It seems – If someone landed from Mars and observed this, they'd be scratching their heads.
Holdren: Yeah, they'd be – I think there are fundamentally two reasons. One is that in the run-up to 2000, the Republicans understood that Al Gore was gonna be the Democratic candidate, and climate was his signature issue. So they thought, "If climate is gonna be the signature issue of our opponent, we're gonna be against it," for political reasons. Second thing that I think has been an important force, 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. And again, I think 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, I think, misguided.
Guterl: Yeah. Well, that certainly – It certainly is misguided. We have no problem taking that position as a magazine. How has the reproducibility problem in science – how has that changed how you've done your job? There's someone writing, whose name is in my notes somewhere, who was arguing in The Lancet not long ago that something like half of the science literature is – may not – simply be untrue, I think was how he put it.
Holdren: No, I saw that argument, and we have discussed that in PCAST, in the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And it's been discussed elsewhere around the government, including of course in the biomedical space, in NIH, where most of that focus has been. And I would say, first of all, it is an important problem and an important issue. It hasn't changed the way I do my work. It has stimulated people to look at the reasons that some substantial amount – I'm not gonna say what I think the percentage is, 'cause I think some percentage numbers have been bandied about that are probably too high – but some fraction of scientific work has proven not to be reproducible.
And there are a number of reasons. One is flawed statistical methods that were used by the original researchers, the people who did their statistics for them. Sometimes there are subtle changes in experimental conditions, or subtle changes in the state of the world that make an experiment nonreproducible, that is other than just the fault of the initial investigators. And my impression from people in the biomedical field is that there's quite a lot of that. The ways the questions are asked, the kind of tools that are available to bring to bear, the microbiological environment has changed.
So, y'know, it's a challenge to do reproducible science in some of these domains. I don't worry so much in, for example, in areas that I've had a large part of my focus on – climate change, for example. Obviously, there is a range of results that come from different kinds of studies. But the overall compatibility of findings in climate science is enormous. I mean, I used to tell my students the amount of confidence that you can have in a particular scientific result is related to the diversity of lines of evidence as well as the quality of each one, and the extent to which these diverse lines of evidence converge on a consistent picture.
In climate change, that criterion is very solidly met. I mean, there probably has never been a body of literature that has been reviewed, re-reviewed, scrutinized and cleansed of incompetent results as climate change, through the studies of the National Academies, the studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – I mean, it's just been exceptionally reviewed. And there's a lot of stuff out there in science that gets less reviewed, including – Y'know, there's that huge amount of pressure to publish, and a certain amount of stuff that gets published that isn't very good is published prematurely, because people are associating how fast they're going to get promoted and how fast they're gonna get raises with how many publications they have – with some degree of confidence that nobody'll ever figure out how sloppy the work is.
And that's a very bad situation. We should not be rewarding numbers of publications the way we do. We should be rewarding quality and impact.
Guterl: Some of your – The initiative to build a database of a million people, a genomic database, and also –
Holdren: Yeah, the million person cohort in the Precision Medicine Initiative. Yeah.
Guterl: And to – And also when it comes to utility – information on utility use and this sort of thing – Is this – ? In light of cybersecurity, the threats that are all too apparent, what's been happening lately in the news, is this a good idea? To put all this – encourage individuals to get all this information out on the Web? Or collected in one place?
Holdren: No. You have to qualify it. And certainly there are risks. We have put a lot of thought with the community. It's not just the government thinking, but meeting with privacy experts, civil rights experts, academics, people in the private sector who are making use of data for profit in various ways.
We produced two reports. One a report by PCAST on big data and privacy, and one a report by an interagency task force led by John Podesta that I was also on as the co-chair of PCAST, so we had some connectivity in these studies. We have produced studies of cybersecurity and of big data and cybersecurity, trying to understand this set of intersections which is evolving constantly with technology. And 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. I mean, this is what's called the Common Rule, and this has been under discussion for the last eight years, is 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 get 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.
But we think the benefits in precision medicine – from being able to analyze the data of millions of people, and to correlate across the kinds of treatments and therapies that have been tried, the kinds of preventive strategies that have been tried, what has worked and what hasn't worked – we think this can revolutionize medicine. Y'know, there was a big event yesterday with the signing of the 21st Century Cures Act by the president, a big event in the South Court Auditorium, talking about the potential benefits of this intersection of big data, big data analytics, electronic health records, genomic information, microbiome information, information about the environments that people have been in.
The amount that we can learn about that is extraordinary. And there is already such great evidence of benefit. I mean, just through understanding a relatively small number of genes that produce very high propensity to certain kinds of cancers has saved a lot of lives by enabling people to look for those cancers early enough.
Guterl: I do want to ask you about the BRAIN Initiative. How have you set this up? What would you like to see happen, going forward with this initiative? And how have you set it up so that it will last in any kind of administration, Republican or Democratic?
Holdren: Well, first of all, it should be understood that the BRAIN Initiative is just a modest part of the overall neuroscience initiative of the government and the administration. We spend something like $6 billion a year on neuroscience, a few hundred million on the BRAIN Initiative. The BRAIN initiative is really about mapping, visualizing, being able to see in real time what the brain is doing, and how large groups of neurons are functioning to do different things, which we will then be able to apply to the other parts of the neuroscience initiative to better understand Parkinson's, epilepsy, Alzheimer's, post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury. So there's a tremendous opportunity, through the use of rapidly emerging tools to visualize how the brain works, to inform all these other areas of neuroscience to the benefit of medicine and public health.
The way we set it up, this initiative in particular – First of all, the theme of partnerships has been an enormously important theme 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 advance manufacturing initiatives, our clean energy initiatives, and our biomedical initiatives – combating antibiotic resistance is another important one – Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN Initiative. When we set it up, we basically did a lot of ground work.
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 agencies. So we got DARPA, we got NSF, we got NIH, we got DOE with their incredible computing capabilities that are better than anybody's – all working together on this. And so when you say, "How will this go forward?" you got a tremendous community of folks who are seeing this progress. They're seeing 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 there's gonna be – You talked about constituencies before; there's gonna be a very strong constituency for keeping this going. And, y'know, if anything is a bipartisan issue, it's health. Y'know, I've had some contentious hearing 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.
Guterl: What was the most contentious?
Holdren: [Laughs] The most contentious ones have generally been about climate change. And – But one of which got on the Daily Show, the Q&A of my September, 2014 testimony before the House Science Committee. John Stewart found it so entertaining he made a ten-minute segment about it.
Guterl: That's funny.
Holdren: But this hearing – Y'know, I – House CJS Appropriations subcommittee had been very critical of our cooperation with China as something that they didn't wanna support. A lot of other criticisms. They had criticisms of our space priorities. They loved the BRAIN Initiative. That hearing was a lovefest.
And in fact, then-chairman Frank Wolfe, who had strongly opposed our doing anything with China, said in that hearing, "This is one thing I'd be happy to see you cooperate with China on."
Guterl: Okay. I gotta go. It was a rare treat. Thank you.
Holdren: Well, thank you. I really appreciate Scientific American's interest.
Guterl: Well, I appreciate that.
Holdren: I've had a few pieces in that magazine, y'know?
Guterl: Yes, you have, and I hope you haven't written your last time _____.
Holdren: I hope so, too.
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