Obama brings internationalist outlook to US science

John Holdren has long advocated the involvement of US scientists in international affairs Copyright: © Martha Stewart

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President-elect Barack Obama has signalled a new era for science in US policy with several key appointees known for their interest in science and technology in developing countries.

John P. Holdren, a physicist who has been active for many years on a wide range of policy issues from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change, has been nominated head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and presidential science adviser.

Jane Lubchenco, an internationally recognised ecologist and former president for the International Council for Science (ICSU), has been asked to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a body whose responsibilities include a major role in international negotiations on environmental and climate change issues.

And Harold Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and chair of the scientific board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges of Global Health, has – together with Holdren and genome specialist Eric Lander – been appointed co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

In announcing the new appointments last Saturday (20 December), Obama stressed that he would make decisions "on fact and science rather than ideology", an explicit rejection of the administration of President George W. Bush, who has been widely criticised for doing the opposite on topics from stem cells to climate change.

Solving 21st century problems

Holdren is currently Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program in the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Both he and Lubchenco are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and both have been strong advocates of US scientists taking a robust role in international affairs, including in particular the impact of science and technology in developing countries.

Commenting on his nomination, Holdren said in a statement that "None of the great interlinked challenges of our time — the economy, energy, environment, health, security and the particular vulnerabilities of the poor to shortfalls in all of these — can be solved without insights and advances from the physical sciences, the life sciences and engineering".

His appointment has been widely welcomed by the scientific community, who felt that their views on important global topics were increasingly ignored in Washington. It has also been welcomed by climate change activists, who see it as a sign of a sea-change in the administration’s attitude towards international negotiations, including the need to engage developing countries.

At the Harvard Kennedy School, for example, Holdren and colleagues have developed substantial programmes of cooperation with both China and India on developing cleaner, more efficient energy technologies to address the related challenges of climate change, oil dependence and sustainable development.

Holdren himself was a coordinating lead author of the 2007 report of the UN Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

Unique global expertise

"Holdren will bring to the office unique expertise on how to use science and technology to promote global understanding," says his Belfer colleague Calestous Juma, who is Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School.

"More specifically, he has devoted a large part of his life to exploring how technological innovation can help improve wellbeing in developing countries. His expertise on this these issues is well-aligned with the diplomatic outlook that President Obama has promised to project to the world."

Jane Lubchenco

Jane Lubchenko has been asked to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Flickr/Daniel Heath

Lubchenco has also been welcomed as someone who, both through her ICSU position and her other international activities, has increased scientific participation in programmes throughout the UN system.

Addressing the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York in 2004, for example, she welcomed calls by delegations for more science and technology as major tools for meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

"Scientific and technological information and knowledge are central to the achievement of these goals," Lubchenco said. "Understanding this centrality as well as the urgency of the problems, the S&T community has actively embraced the immense challenge of providing and sharing the knowledge needed to achieve the goals set."

She urged governments to strengthen their support for the involvement of their scientific communities in international and coordinated research programmes, especially those that address water, sanitation, human settlements and other MDG-relevant topics.

Veteran global health campaigner

Harold Varmus, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1989 for his studies on the genetic basis of cancer, is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.

Varmus served on the WHO’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, and has long campaigned for greater attention to be given by the US biomedical community to the health needs of developing countries, for example in advocating greater international efforts to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS.

In a recent speech at the NIH’s Fogarty International Center, for example, Varmus urged Congress to double the amount of money that the US spends on global health and suggested that this effort should be highlighted as "a pillar of US foreign policy".

Varmus is also widely known as an energetic proponent of the need for open access to scientific journals. In particular, he is a co-founder and chair of the board of directors at the Public Library of Science, which currently publishes seven open access scientific journals.