My Failed Mission to Hold Holdren Accountable

By The Intersection | May 5, 2011 11:17 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Last night, the George Washington University and the University of Ottawa presented the D. Allan Bromley Memorial Lecture with featured speaker Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

I attended the event with the intention of getting to the root of a problem that has been irking me for months.  I wanted to ask Dr. Holdren why the scientific integrity guidelines that he requested from all agencies have not been delivered.  This has been a drawn out process mired in inaction and delays since President Obama made his request for the guidelines more than 2 years ago.

Initially, the President assigned to Dr. Holdren “the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes.”  Dr. Holdren was to confer with “the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President, and recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.”  This task was to be performed within 120 days of the issuance of the President’s memorandum.  That would have been approximately July 9, 2009.  Instead, it took more than 18 months before Dr. Holdren produced his own memorandum on December 17, 2010 directing the heads of the executive departments and agencies to implement the Administration’s policies on scientific integrity.  In his memo, Dr. Holdren asked that “all agencies report to [him] within 120 days the actions they have taken to develop and implement policies” in these areas.

On April 21, 2011, OSTP reported that all 30 executive branch departments, agencies and offices had responded to Dr. Holdren’s request, six of which had submitted draft or completed policies.  This announcement, however, described the responses as “progress reports,” which for me changes the meaning of Dr. Holdren’s December memo.  Whereas last year Dr. Holdren asked for a report of “the actions that have been taken to develop and implement policies,” one might assume this means more than a progress report.  Personally, I would like to see a little more action on this issue.

Why am I so concerned about the establishment of these guidelines? For starters, I shouldn’t have to remind you of the gross misconduct that occurred at the Department of the Interior during the Bush administration in regards to endangered species.  But, I’m also troubled by the 2010 survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists that concluded that special interests and public officials continue to routinely inhibit government scientists and inspectors from doing their job of protecting the American food supply.  If these problems are readily detectable by a UCS survey, we must wonder what types of infringements are occurring without our knowledge.  Thus, it is imperative that scientific integrity guidelines be established pronto.

What happened at the end of the speech caught me completely off-guard. Dr. Holdren’s talk was entitled “Science and Technology Policy Challenges and Opportunities in the Obama Administration.”  After providing a little history of his position as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Dr. Holdren launched into a presentation on Science and Technology Policy.  He covered science and technology for policy and policy for science and technology, two topics with unique challenges in and of themselves.  It was very much an academic talk about the distinctions of each of these areas of science policy.  Frankly, it was a lecture I’ve seen many times prior to this speech.  In the process of describing the problems and opportunities in science and technology process, he made one point that I found to be reassuring in light of my chosen career path.  Dr. Holdren confirmed that a non-problem for the science and technology is the availability of job posts for science and technology policy-trained individuals.

At a time when budgets are being squeezed in the fields of science and technology, to hear that there is an area where science-minded individuals can take refuge is heartening.  Although I shouldn’t be too pessimistic about science funding, because Dr. Holdren provided evidence of his effective advocacy for preserving science funding even during this time of economic hardship.   He showed that among the agencies that receive federal funding for scientific endeavors few budgets were cut and some agencies even received a boost in funding.

The cynical attitude with which I entered the room began to fade.  By the time Dr. Holdren reached the section of his speech entitled “President Obama’s view”, my spirits had been lifted.  Granted, this was Dr. Holdren’s mission with this speech, but I think there was no doubt that those in the room were inspired.  As Dr. Holdren went on to describe President Obama’s engagement with the science and technology community, I began to have hope that we are making progress in the fight to maintain our competitiveness in the world.

There were a few moments in which Dr. Holdren talked candidly about the President’s commitment to science that drove the point home for me.  First, Dr. Holdren pointed out that the President has appointed no less than 5 Nobel Laureates to his cabinet and/or to head various scientific agencies.  At high level positions within the administration, there are 25 members from our leading scientific organizations including the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and American Association of Arts and Sciences.  President Obama has appointed the first ever Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer.  Dr. Holdren was adamant that no President in history has made science, technology and innovation more prominent in their administration.

President Obama continues to demonstrate his commitment to science and technology through White House events speeches and policy recommendations.  President Obama was the first to give a speech at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) since John F. Kennedy.  During that speech, the President stated, “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

In terms of real policy, President Obama has acknowledged that science and technology are central to America’s economic recovery and growth.  America is facing challenges in nearly every sector of our economy.  Many of these challenges will be solved through scientific endeavors.  Investments in infotech, biotech, nanotech and greentech will be the way to success.  According to Dr. Holdren, the ways that we will ensure that we have the scientific capital to address these problems also include investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, lowering or eliminating taxes on research and development expenditures and encouraging cooperation and partnerships among our scientific agencies.  He confirmed that the President reads the recommendations from his council of advisors on science and technology (PCAST) and he stated that “what the President knows about science and technology is simply extraordinary.”

Dr. Holdren boasted that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has the “highest batting average” among executive offices that submit event requests for the President to attend.  He even went so far as to say that the President had stated his desire to spend more time with science students and less time with athletes (Sorry UConn).

By the time, Dr. Holdren reached the issue of scientific integrity guidelines, it felt rather ridiculous for me to squabble about the rate of progress on this issue.  Dr. Holdren pointed out that his staff of 100 at OSTP is simply dwarfed by the volume of work they face on a daily basis.  Although I continue to hold reservations about the tenacity with which the scientific integrity guidelines are being pursued, I now have more of a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  From a cynical perspective, it seems that this administration continues to be bogged down by at least 8 years of neglect and I can only hope that they will get on schedule to undo the damage before President Obama leaves office.

As I said before, I entered the room with a specific (cynical) goal and left feeling inspired.  Dr. Holdren was very effective at winning me over.  If I haven’t made his case clear enough, I’ll leave you with one of his departing remarks that I feel represents a distinct difference between the current administration’s appreciation for science and technology and the previous administration and the impact that will have on our future.

At the end of the event, when asked about programs designed to encourage minorities and particularly women to participate in science, Dr. Holdren offered this example:

In October of 2009, President Obama hosted “Astronomy Night at the White House.”  I believe Dr. Holdren said there were more than 30 telescopes on the White House South Lawn.  In attendance were 300 middle school students from the DC-area.  Also, attending the event were “space heroes” Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride and several other astronomers and space scientists including 5 women scientists.  Two of the students, 14 year old Caroline Moore and Lucas Bolyard, a high school sophomore, had each made significant astronomical discoveries.  Caroline had become the youngest person to discover a supernova and Lucas located a pulsar.  After presenting awards to the students and talking about the importance of science education, President Obama finished is comments with a lasting thought.  First, he asked the children in attendance, “which one of you are going to come back here to claim your prize?”  He went on to ask the students “Are you going to find a new star? Or a cure for a disease? Or invent the next iPhone?…What will your great discovery be?”

Dr. Holdren’s wife was in the audience amongst the students.  She described to Dr. Holdren how the children had responded to these questions from President Obama.  One of the students with tears on their cheek said, “The President was talking to me.”


Comments (7)

  1. Chris Mooney

    No doubt this admin is very very in love with science. But do we have any good evidence about what happened with the guidelines, etc? Clearly, there was a holdup somewhere in the government. The question is, where was it? OMB?

  2. Liz Neeley

    I’m curious about the OSTP staff. Is 100 people not enough the same way that we always call for more research and more funding, or is there more to it? Are they evenly distributed among the four divisions?

    • The Intersection

      I have requested the information from Dr. Holdren. We’ll see if he’s able to respond.

  3. Aloysius

    Integrity and politics don’t go together any more. We’re still jousting at the windmill of global warming and the amount of pseudo-science associated with alternative energy is mind boggling.

  4. He did give out his email address, you can try and see if he’ll answer. But with all of half a second spent on in during the lecture, I don’t expect much.

    • The Intersection

      I have emailed Dr. Holdren. We’ll see if he has time to respond.
      It would be an impressive result to actually get the answers to these questions.

  5. Liz,

    It’s on the website.

    Technology has the most staff of the four, but Associate Director Chopra is also CTO and reports directly to the President. The Director’s Office has more staff than any of the divisions.


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