Published December 19, 2008
John Holdren is a noted Harvard physicist who went from battling the spread of nuclear weapons to the tackling the threat of global warming. He won a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Some colleagues call Holdren one of the smartest people in the world.
As of Friday, he also was the leading contender to serve as top science adviser to President-elect Barack Obama.
While not confirmed by Obama officials, the scientific community was abuzz with the news. The American Association for the Advancement of Science said on its Science Insider Web site that Obama was expected to name Holdren to the post on Saturday.
Obama also was expected to soon tap Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and expert on overfishing and climate change, as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Colleagues at the university described her as a leading contender for the post and said she was traveling to Chicago, where Obama has been making his Cabinet announcements.
NOAA is the federal agency in charge of the National Weather Service, climate monitoring, the oceans, fisheries management and coastal restoration.
The choice of Holdren, who has crusaded against what he calls "global climate disruption," would be a clear signal that the new administration plans to tackle energy issues and fight global warming, Holdren's friends and colleagues said. He's an award-laden scientist comfortable in many different fields; some colleagues call him one of the smartest people in the world.
As Obama's top science adviser, Holdren would manage about 40 Ph.D-level experts who help shape and communicate science and technology policy.
"Global warming is a misnomer. It implies something gradual, something uniform, some quite possibly benign, and what we're experiencing is none of those," Holdren said a year ago in a speech at Harvard. "There is already widespread harm ... occurring from climate change. This is not just a problem for our children and our grandchildren."
Holdren has taken his concern about global warming from university lecture halls to popular television.
"Basically the whole thing is accelerating," he said in April. "Every time you turn around there's a new report that says some aspect of climate change is happening bigger, faster, more dangerously." He compared not doing anything about global warming to ignoring terrorism.
Holdren has been critical of people who deny that global warming is man-made and happening
"These people are just spitting into the wind," he told The Associated Press in 2006.
Some of those skeptics were upset about the choice.
Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said Holdren would be one of Obama's "worst choices yet." Ebell said it was an issue of science and personality with Holdren, saying: "He rants, he's a ranter. He particularly likes to personalize factual disputes by accusing opponents of being dishonest, underhanded and slimy."
Holdren holds several jobs at Harvard, including professor of environmental policy and director of the program in Science, Technology and Public Policy. He also directs the Woods Hole Research Center, a Massachusetts nonprofit academic and public policy organization that researches environmental issues.
Holdren and Lubchenco are both past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation's largest science organization.
Holdren also was head of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, an international group of arms control scientists that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, with Holdren giving the acceptance speech. In 1981, he won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" for his work on arms control. He also has won several prominent awards for his work in environmental science issues.
Holdren "is one of the best scientists in the world, exceptionally smart, exceptionally honest," said Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, who has written studies with Holdren and shared an environmental prize with him. "He knows more about the environment and biology than any other physicist in the world."
Alan Leshner, who as chief executive officer of AAAS has worked with Holdren, called it "an inspired choice at this point in the history of the world where the big issues of the day are international security, climate and energy. And John Holdren is an expert in all of those things."
President George W. Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, also praised Holdren: "He's a well-known science policy expert in energy and environment. I think he's well qualified to have this position."