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Former Director of the White House OSTP Encourages Students to Remain Active, Engaged and Optimistic

On February 27,  the University of Maryland School of Public Policy hosted guest lecturer Dr. John P. Holdren, former assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for the Obama Administration. Holdren visited the class, co-taught by Research Professor Rosina Bierbaum and Distinguished University Professor Sylvester James Gates, Jr. from the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences , and spoke of his experiences working with President Obama and explored the role of government in relation to science, technology and environment.  

Distinguished UMD Professor Sylvester James Gates, Jr. introduced his former colleague, exclaiming that Holdren was the most extraordinary science advisor the White House has seen since World War II and Vannevar Bush. Holdren, who is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is also a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Member of the National Academy of Engineering.  

Holdren began his lecture by asking what role science and technology plays in the national agenda and what the role of government plays in science and technology.  He claimed that, “science is one of the things that makes us human,” and that, “it lifts the human spirit and plays a crucial role in the future of our country.” He argued that science and technology is vitally important to many national interests and the government should be involved in developing the country’s capacity for science and technology by funding research at the nation’s universities; helping to shape research and development policies at the local, state and federal levels; fostering STEM education programs; and working with the private sector in public private partnerships.  

Throughout his presentation, Holdren celebrated President Obama’s commitment to science and technology and his desire to “restore science to its rightful place” in society.  As the director of OSTP, Holdren advised the president on matters related to oversight of the National Science Foundation and NASA, managed National Science and Technology Council and helped implement ministerial level bilateral science and technology agreements with countries around the world. In addition to OSTP, the president was also advised by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a committee of leading scientists, engineers and innovators who served part-time on a pro bono basis and provided guidance on a variety of science and technology matters. (During the Obama Administration, UMD was the only University with PCAST members - Bierbaum and Gates.)

With the change in administration, Holdren expressed concern about keeping science in its rightful place. Noting potential budget cuts to agencies such as NASA, NOAA, DOE, NSF, USDA, EPA and FDA, Holdren said investment in science and technology could take a big hit.  Nevertheless, he advised students not to be discouraged, but to continue their valuable contributions to the field and continue to communicate their findings. Holdren encouraged everyone in the room to dedicate 10 percent of their time to focusing on educating the public and policymakers about the importance of their work and science and technology.

During a brief question and answer session, Holdren answered students’ questions about the future of science and technology in our country.  

Given the new administration, students expressed concern that the U.S. may soon step down from its position as global leader in the climate change movement, which could cause other countries to back down from their commitments as well. Holdren agreed that if the U.S. breaks its commitment to climate change mitigation, the world would suffer, not for a loss of leadership, but because the U.S. is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. He was confident, however, that countries like China recognize the stark reality of climate change and would remain committed to mitigation efforts whether or not the U.S. government continues its leadership.  

In his parting remarks, Holdren observed that we live in interesting times. Throughout his address he repeatedly expressed concern for the future of science and technology in our nation, yet encouraged students to remain active, engaged and optimistic.