Published online 22 December 2008 | 457, 10-11 (2009) | doi:10.1038/457010a


Obama's picks underline climate focus

Strong roles for biologists as the president-elect chooses his science and technology team.

John Holdren, a leading voice on climate change at Harvard University, will serve as science adviser to US president-elect Barack Obama. And Jane Lubchenco, a strong advocate of marine conservation at Oregon State University in Corvallis, will head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Looking to the future: John Holdren, has long pushed for changes to US energy policy.K. Srakocic /AP

Holdren, as is normal for US science advisers, has a background in physics. At the time of his appointment, two eminent biologists were named to co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) with him. One will be Harold Varmus, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, who led Obama's science advisory team during the campaign. The other is Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who helped lead the push to sequence the human genome.

Together, these appointments underscore how Obama is choosing experienced academics for positions in government once he becomes president on 20 January.

If confirmed by the Senate, Holdren will replace John Marburger as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which helps set research agendas and budgets across multiple federal agencies. Holdren will also hold the title of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology; this is seen by some as a clear step up from the title Marburger enjoys, Science Advisor to the President (see Nature 455, 453; 2008).

Holdren's appointment quickly won praise from other academics. "He's competent and at the forefront of so many fields," says Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and president of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. "He's encyclopaedic, he's quick and he's deep." Representative Vernon Ehlers (Republican, Michigan), a physicist, adds: "He's an excellent choice, a good scientist, and I think he will serve the president and the country well."

Holdren also directs the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Now an environmental-­policy specialist, in his early career he worked as an engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, and as a fusion scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also in California. He worked on nuclear weapons and non-­proliferation issues while chairman of the executive committee for the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs — a familiarity with this issue that is in keeping with past science advisers. "He is comfortably in the same sort of mould that we've had for many decades," says John Gibbons, a science adviser to President Bill Clinton, "except for the unusual extent in the depth of his involvement in the process of science in government."

“He knows what he doesn't know, and he knows who to ask.”

Holdren is no stranger to Washington, having served on the PCAST to Clinton. In that capacity, he chaired a number of major reports meant to guide energy policy, including one that promoted a move away from coal and towards nuclear energy and renewables, says Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering. "All of the things that you expect in 2008 — but that you might not have seen on the agenda about a decade ago," says Vest.

For another PCAST report, Holdren delivered a solo presentation to Clinton on non-proliferation strategy in the early era of post-Soviet Russia, says Gibbons. "It was very coherent, expert — it answered the question authoritatively," he says. "That ultimately led to a US position on plutonium disposition a couple of weeks later when the president went to Moscow." Holdren's understanding of how the White House works will serve him well, says Neal Lane, another former Clinton science adviser.

Rare skill

In recent years, Holdren has been a tireless advocate for improving US energy policy, travelling the world and lecturing on science's role in sustainability. He has said that reading The Challenge of Man's Future by Harrison Brown — which looked at the science of sustainability — in high school set him on a path to working on the intersection between science, technology and society. He has even appeared on David Letterman's late-night show to discuss the science of global warming.

Marine star: Jane Lubchenco will run the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.J. Lubchenco

Daniel Schrag, a climate scientist and Harvard colleague, says that Holdren's wide-ranging interests belie his depth of knowledge in a number of areas. "John has a remarkable ability to survey vast areas of scientific infor­mation and distil them down to their essence — that's a very rare skill," says Schrag. "He knows what he doesn't know, and he knows who to ask." Schrag also says that Holdren is skilled at getting people from different backgrounds together; as co-chairman of the National Commission on Energy Policy, Holdren led a bipartisan group including business and industry leaders to produce a document in 2004 on how to "end the energy stalemate". Holdren understands that fixing climate change comes with big costs, says Schrag. His familiarity with Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who will head the National Economic Council, might help him to that end.

One unresolved question is how all the climate and energy specialists in the Obama administration might work together. Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Chu will head the Department of Energy; former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner is in a new White House position overseeing climate and energy policy. "It'll all have to be coordinated very carefully," says Lane.

Lubchenco, like Holdren, is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A marine ecologist, she has spoken out against overfishing and done research in the hypoxic, or dead, zones that can be caused in some areas by fertilizer run-off. As head of NOAA she will have jurisdiction over a wide range of issues including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Weather Service.


Dealing with fisheries "will be one of her major challenges", says John Byrne, who headed NOAA during the administration of Ronald Reagan and is a former president of Oregon State University. Industry groups are wary of her pro-conservation stances, but Byrne thinks that Lubchenco is up to the challenge of running the agency. "It needs someone to respond to issues such as climate change, pressure on coastal zones, ocean pollution and over-fishing in a firm way. She will do that," he says.

Another appointment in Obama's environmental team is Ken Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado, to head the Department of the Interior. Salazar is known as a middle-of-the-roader who has protested against Bush administration plans to expand oil-shale development in the American west, but who has also supported offshore drilling. The agency oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been buffeted in recent years over its handling of species listings under the Endangered Species Act. 

Additional reporting by Ashley Yeager.

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