Published online 18 February 2009 | Nature 457, 942-943 (2009) | doi:10.1038/457942b

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John Holdren: adviser on science, fish and wine

Confirmation for Obama's candidate.

John Holdren, US President Barack Obama's choice as chief science adviser, faced a single criticism during his otherwise gentle Senate confirmation hearing on 12 February: over the years he had warned of disasters that have yet to materialize.

Given Holdren's qualifications as a physicist and engineer with nearly four decades of work on energy, climate and nuclear proliferation behind him, it was about all the critics had to go on. The job fell to Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who peppered Holdren with gloomy assessments dating back to 1971 about overpopulation, an unspecified eco-catastrophe, thermonuclear war and global warming.

Calmly pointing out that he was 26 in 1971, Holdren said one of the things he has learned since is that predicting the future is "difficult". And although he said he no longer thinks it useful to focus on population, he didn't yield any ground on global warming: "I think it is important to call attention to the dangers that society faces," he told Vitter.

The Senate is expected to confirm Holdren's nomination soon, along with that of Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from Oregon State University who will head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (ofscience.html">click here for coverage of their confirmation hearings).

As chief of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Holdren will lead a staff of about 60 that provides technical advice on daily decisions, budgets and the full range of federal policy. In many ways, friends and colleagues say, he has been training for this position his entire career.

"John is enormously focused and incredibly persuasive," says Henry Lee, who until recently co-taught a course with him on energy technology, policy and economics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I think in a matter of months he will be a major intellectual driver in this administration."

Holdren has a history of getting things done. Beginning in 1973, he built the University of California Berkeley's fledgling Energy and Resources Group, the first interdisciplinary graduate programme on the campus, into a major initiative that continues to produce leading research on everything from state and local air pollution regulations to international energy and climate policy. "It is one of the only interdisciplinary energy centres that has not only persisted since then, but literally grown into a major hub of action on energy and climate and sustainability," says Dan Kammen, who studied there and assumed Holdren's position after he left for Harvard.

In 1996, Holdren came to the Kennedy School to head the Belfer Center's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program; he expanded its focus on energy and climate policy while bolstering research into nuclear non-proliferation issues. Centre director Graham Allison says that Holdren was an ideal candidate for the job, but he is only half joking when he says it was Holdren's love of fishing that made the deal possible. While still at Berkeley, Holdren had bought a home near Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with easy access to top-notch saltwater fly-fishing. Allison discovered he was looking to make a move, contacted him and eventually sweetened the Harvard deal by offering to take Holdren and his wife Cheryl on a fishing trip in the Caribbean (paid for by Allison).

Friends say Holdren deploys the tools of science in his life as a whole. His fishing database, where he keeps track of key variables such as time, location, tide and water temperature, along with records of which fish are biting on what, is legendary. Holdren has also developed an algorithm for comparing wine ratings to price lists, and he sends a list of the best-buys to friends each Christmas. "But you have to act on it quickly, because sometimes it moves local markets," Allison says.

Holdren typically took the bus from Woods Hole — where he was director of the Woods Hole Research Center — to Cambridge for work each Tuesday and stayed the night with Dan Schrag, a geochemist in Harvard's earth and planetary sciences department. Holdren would then attend the department's regular Wednesday breakfast meeting, a freewheeling session for professors, postdocs and guests, taking the bus back on Wednesday night.

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Last week's breakfast began with Holdren's appointment before shifting to the economic crisis, science as economic stimulus (see 'Medical research scores big in US stimulus bill') and how a severe recession might affect universities. Schrag says it might be a while before anybody knows just how effective Holdren is in his new position, but it bodes well that he has already secured four deputies (the last administration cut the number down to two), restored the OSTP's place on the security council and negotiated workspace in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

"I've gotten e-mails from John saying, 'Can you get me a list of X in the next two hours?'. That's a good sign," he says, as presidential advisers need to influence decisions in the White House on the order of days or even hours. "The question is whether he and his deputies will be in that inner circle that is making decisions in the West Wing." 

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