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Senate Confirms Holdren as new OSTP Director

Richard M. Jones
Number 33 - March 20, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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John Holdren was confirmed yesterday by the Senate as the new Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren’s confirmation was expected last month, and the delay in the Senate floor vote illustrates the unpredictability of the governing process.

The nomination was literally put on hold because of a disagreement about a change in U.S. policy on Cuba. The only relationship between Holdren’s nomination and Cuban policy was the coincidence of timing: both were on the Senate’s agenda at about the same time. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), wanting to gain the attention of the Senate leadership, put a hold on the nominations of Holdren and Jane Lubchenco who had been nominated to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other senators reportedly put holds on the nominations. These holds were lifted last week, and senators approved both nominations by voice vote yesterday without debate.

Both nominees appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on February 12. Holdren’s appearance went smoothly except for a ten minute exchange with Senator David Vitter (R-LA) who charged that statements by Holdren indicated the nominee’s ideology had overtaken science. Vitter based his contention on three statements: the first in an article when Holdren was 26 years old, and another dating to 1973. Vitter also asked if Holdren was mistaken in 2006 when he commented on expected sea level changes because of global climate change, to which Holdren replied that research released since then indicates a different range of possibilities.

Other exchanges were more like that with committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) who asked both witnesses how they would protect the integrity of science. Holdren, citing a provision of the America COMPETES Act, said he will “develop and issue an overarching set of principles to ensure the open communication of data and results from federal scientists, and to prevent the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of such research findings.”

Rockefeller then asked how divergent views should be resolved in areas such as climate change. Holdren’s reply indicates how he will approach such issues, as well as his position on climate change:

“. . . there is always, has always been, always will be diversity of opinion among scientists about any complicated issue. Scientists are as diverse a group as any other you will find, and people come to different conclusions about how to interpret the same data. This is routine.

“My position would be that in matters of public policy, policymakers should bet with the odds. You look at the range of scientific opinion. You look at the center of gravity of that scientific opinion. You look at what the bodies that have accumulated the most expert knowledge and brought it to bear on the question have to say. And while you can never conclude that any particular interpretation in science is final. All science is contingent. It could change with new information, new data, new observations, new analysis. But if you're making policy, it is wise, in my judgment, to go with the opinion of the bulk of the part of the scientific community that has studied that particular question.

“In the case of climate change, immense effort has been devoted to determining what that center of gravity of scientific opinion is. It's available to us in the reports of the National Academy of Sciences, in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the reports of distinguished bodies all around the world who have focused the relevant expertise available to them on this question. And the basic conclusions of all of those groups are the same: Climate change is real. It's accelerating. It is caused in substantial part by human activity. It is dangerous. And it is getting more so.

“There are lots of details on which you can find lots of difference of opinion, but the mainstream view is the one I have just stated. And if I were a policymaker betting the public's welfare on an interpretation of science, I would go with the mainstream.”

The committee’s Ranking Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) spoke of focusing the federal government’s research on “innovation and technological advances that have kept our economy strong through the years.” Holdren responded that “we need to pay very careful attention to the adequacy of our support for fundamental research to this country,”adding “nobody but the government is going to invest the sums of money needed to get that done.” Of the key recommendation in the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report to double over seven years funding for NSF, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Holdren said: “I think it’s a good idea. I think we will pursue very vigorously every way at our disposal to try to see that that happens . . . it will be a huge challenge in the current budget environment.”

Regarding OSTP, Holdren told the senators that he will have four Senate-confirmed associate directors for science, technology, environment, and international affairs. He views the primary job of OSTP as one of coordination, and the building of relationships. Holdren plans to revive the National Science and Technology Council to ensure better coordination and communication between federal science agencies.

When pressed about the Administration’s approach to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, Holdren cited the president’s position of aiming to reduce them “by something like 80 percent in 2050.” That reduction would provide a “reasonable chance of confining the global average surface temperature increase to about 2 degrees Celsius.” He said it would be “a great challenge to get there,” adding that it would offer tremendous opportunities in innovation and subsequent job creation to maintain and improve the U.S. competitive position. Holdren was optimistic that China and India would engage in the process since climate change is hurting their nations. He predicted that there will be much discussion about emission control approaches and provisions, and told the senators, “it’s going to be a long slog. I don’t want to kid anybody. This is going to be tough. . . . ”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095