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Dr. John Holdren Speaks on the Intersection of Science & Policy

On October 26, 2016, fifty HKS alums and guests had an extraordinary opportunity to hear Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor and the longest-serving science advisor in US history, reflect on his tenure and the role of science in policy more broadly.

Dr. Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Co-Chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), previously served as a professor and director of the HKS Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy.

Calling President Obama “the most science-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson,” Dr. Holdren illustrated the many ways in which the Obama administration has worked to “restore science to its rightful place.” He highlighted what he felt were the most important of these efforts for the next administration to continue: bringing globally recognized leaders in science and technology fields into key government positions; pursuing important (and well-funded) biomedical initiatives, such as those on cancer and antibiotic resistance; expanding STEM education; broadening the capabilities of earth observation networks so that we can better “see what’s coming” both from a scientific and national security perspective; building partnerships within government, across sectors, and with other countries; and the powerful symbolism of hosting science fairs and astronomy nights at the White House. Dr. Holdren shared fascinating insights about President Obama’s commitment to elevating the standing of science, as well as his unique way of engaging intellectually with complex issues in collaboration with his top advisors.

Dr. Holdren reminded us that the science of climate change has long been well-established--he wrote his first paper on the subject in 1969—but that we are only now nearing a “tipping point” in public perception about its catastrophic impacts, due primarily to increasingly common disasters like floods and mudslides brought about by increased rainfall.

He is, however, encouraged by recent progress in international agreements to limit carbon emissions, and described close collaborations across government to address climate change as a critical national security threat.

In the long term, Dr. Holdren thinks “raising our game” with STEM education is key to meeting challenges like climate change; that we must build a science-savvy citizenry which will ultimately elect members of Congress who understand science and use it appropriately in policymaking.

The event was co-sponsored by the HKS DC Alumni Council and Forum One, who hosted the event. HKS alum and CEO of Forum One, Chris Wolz, opened the session by welcoming everyone. Nancy Bearg, HKS DC Council Secretary, provided an overview of the Council’s work and gracious thank you to all. Joe McCarthy, who served as Senior Associate Dean and Director of Degree Programs at HKS from 1996-2009, provided a warm and insightful introduction of Dr. Holdren.

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