John Holdren was the longest serving director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in its history. He had a long and illustrious career as President Barack Obama’s science adviser, and served for two years on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, under President Clinton. In this episode, veteran journalist and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing Seth Mnookin talks to Holdren about, among other subjects, the role of adviser, the politicization of science, and the lasting impacts of President Trump’s policies. Also in this episode: Host Kasha Patel looks at a new organism that’s reshaping the way scientists think about microbial evolution, and our producer Lydia Chain chats with Undark’s editors about their favorite stories from the year.
Kasha Patel: Hey, Undark listeners. It’s our last episode of the year! We’re going to hear from our Undark editors about their favorite stories of 2018. And then we’ll hear an interview with John Holdren, science adviser during the Obama administration. But first, I want to talk about one of my favorite stories from the last few months — a hairy little ogre of an organism that is reshaping the way scientists think about our microbial evolution — where we came from on a microscopic level.
Now, to explain how big this discovery is, we should take a quick trip back to high school biology class. One concept that scientists use to think about how different kinds of life are related to each other is called the tree of life. The root of the tree is the very first lifeform that existed and all organisms living and extinct branch off from that. Organisms are also grouped and named at different levels, so a dog is part of the canid family along with wolves, which are a kind of mammal, which is a kind of animal and so on. Well recently, a research group disrupted the way scientists have been drawing that tree and discovered a totally new species — a hairy, single-celled organism.
The furthest back split on the tree of life is between archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. In this story, we’re going to focus on eukaryotes — things like plants, fungi, animals, including us, and also a grouping called protists. Protists are kind of like the junk drawer of eukaryotes — it’s a group with everything from tiny single celled organisms to kelp. But I say “junk drawer” with affection because these organisms are fascinating and absolutely everywhere.
Yana Eglit: And that’s where all the cool ones are. (laughs)
Kasha Patel: That’s Yana Eglit, a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research focuses on discovering new types of eukaryotes and seeing where they fit on the tree of life.
Yana Eglit: And the two ways to do this are either to search for organisms that have never been seen before, or unknown unknowns, if you will. Or organisms that were previously described but never placed in the tree of life or their shape is so strange that it is completely unclear where they go.
Kasha Patel: Eglit and her colleagues found a member of the latter — the group where scientists knew they existed but never learned enough about them to understand their place in the evolutionary tree of life. In the spring of 2016, Eglit went hiking on the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside of Halifax in Canada. Because, well, you never know when you might run into a new protist, she often carries around empty sample vials and decided to collect some soil samples from the side of the trail.
Yana Eglit: Usually we’ll have some vials lying around in our bags when we go traveling or hiking or whatever. We know so little about microbial diversity to this date that you don’t even need to go to a crazy exotic environment to find new things.
Kasha Patel: When she took a closer look back at her lab, it just so happened that that soil sample she had randomly collected contained a rarely seen protist.
Yana Eglit: The first organism that I observed in the dish was the Spironema-like cell. It is very small and skinny and I’ve only seen them one other time.
Kasha Patel: Then when she went back to look for more Spironema in the same dish, Eglit noticed something even more extraordinary.
Yana Eglit: Now, the other organism that was actually very abundant in the dish, it looks superficially like, a large group of hairy-looking multi-flagellated organisms called ciliates, but the way they were moving and there’s something about their shape that didn’t quite match an actual ciliate.
Kasha Patel: Instead, they reminded her of an organism called Hemimastix, a rarely-seen protist that hasn’t been reported in more than 30 years. Eglit was skeptical that she would find two really rare species of protists in one dish.
Yana Eglit: I’m just trying to convince myself that it’s a ciliate because it just seemed very unlikely that it could be this long-lost organism that hasn’t been seen in 30 years in the same dish as the Spironema. And I actually called my supervisor, Alastair Simpson, over to like look at it and just tell me it’s a ciliate so I can move on and focus on the Spironema, which was already very exciting by the way. And he looks at it in silence for about 10, 15 minutes and then tells me he can’t tell me it’s a ciliate. At that point, it was kind of exhilarating.
Kasha Patel: Any kind of hemimastix hadn’t been seen in 30 years, but this specific species was completely new. According to the researchers, it’s a bit of an ogre. It hunts by shooting these little harpoons at its prey. Then it snares in its lunch with its hairs and sucks out the insides of its prey.
Yana Eglit: I’m quite happy that we are not microbially-sized because our world would be even more frightening at that scale.
Kasha Patel: Eglit and her team named this species Hemimastix kukwesjijk after the mythological ogre of the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia, who were the original inhabitants of this land where she found the microbe.
Yana Eglit: The ogre is a hairy predatory creature in the woods and we thought that our microscopic hairy predatory creature of the woods, they shared something in common. And they’re both kind of invisibly there, one in the lore of the land and the other is too small to see by eye.
Kasha Patel: These two species Eglit found in her dish — this Spironema and the hemimastix kukwesjijk — fall under a larger group called Hemimastigophora, which has been known since the 19th century, but has been puzzling for microbiologists. They’ve never been able to do a genetic analysis on these microbes because the organisms were difficult to cultivate in large enough quantities and back then, the technology wasn’t quite advanced enough at that time to sequence small quantities. But now, today, with a new technique, the team was able to look a large number of genes from a single cell.
Eglit and her colleagues looked at the hemimastix kukwesjijk. When they learned more about this organism’s genetic makeup, they found out that it was actually different from any eukaryote they had known before. In fact, this larger Hemimastigophora group was so genetically distinct from other eukaryotes that it needed its own branch on the tree of life.
To show you how different, let’s go back to biology class again. That big eukaryote umbrella is broken into categories that get more and more specific until we get to the label “species.” The first division is into about a half a dozen or so super groups. Yes, super group is the technical biology term. Eglit was seeing if hemimastigophora fits into existing super group, but the genetic data just didn’t match up. So the team established a new super group.
Now, the goal of this whole classification system is to create clusters of species and see if they are derived from a common ancestor and what that ancestor might have been like. Scientists believe that all organisms within each of those half a dozen super groups have evolved from a single Eukaryote common ancestor. Scientists are still trying to figure out how that common ancestor looked, and now they’re a little closer.
Yana Eglit: The position of this major new group will be likely very important in determining where the root of the tree of eukaryotes goes. This is where the deepest split into two happens in the tree. And having one more distinct branch in the tree of eukaryotes that we did not know about will presumably help more accurately reconstruct the history of eukaryotic cells.
Kasha Patel: And that’s a big step. Learning this microbial history isn’t going to happen overnight, but it helps lays the groundwork for ecologists, protistologists, and other biologists to understand more about our evolutionary history.
Now, I know this story is kind of dense, and took a lot of visits back to biology class so why is this one of my favorite stories of 2018? Well, this story shows us there’s a lot still unknown on Earth. We’re looking for life on other planets, and here we are still discovering more life on our home planet! And we get ever closer to answering a fundamental question about our existence — where did we come from? Well at least, microbially speaking.
For those of you that don’t know, Undark is not just a podcast but a full online magazine. So our podcast producer Lydia Chain called up several of the magazine editors to learn what their favorite stories of the year are. Lydia, take it away.
Lydia Chain: Thanks so much, Kasha. All right, so first up is Brooke Borel, a senior editor at Undark. Brooke, what story stuck out for you this year?
Brooke Borel: So I have two stories for you today that I really loved this year for different reasons. The first one is this piece called “Paper Trails: Living and Dying With Fragmented Medical Records,” which was by a great writer, Ilana Yurkiewicz. So patients’ care is getting affected because some really important medical instructions aren’t necessarily making it from one place to another. And I thought she did a really great job on making that story accessible, and incredibly readable.
Lydia Chain: Yeah, that was a really fantastic story and in fact we invited her onto this podcast so that listeners could get a little bit more detail about her experience and for just me personally, it made me really look at how I’m storing all my-
Brooke Borel: I know.
Lydia Chain: … stuff because I don’t know that I can trust the system to keep track of it for me. So, you said you had a second story.
Brooke Borel: Yeah. The second story just came out a couple of weeks ago and it was by this writer, Joelle Renstrom. Originally, we assigned her to go to this conference talking about sex robots and like the latest technology that is exploring things like the moral psychology of sex with robots and stuff like that. But not long before she was supposed to go, they actually canceled the conference really suddenly because a sister conference that was going to be running at the same time, they had invited Steve Bannon and there was a big uproar about this in a big sort of controversy, so they canceled both of these conferences.
So Joelle had to pivot and we had her just do a reported piece specifically on the cancellation and what that means. We can’t get away from these political stories, even when you think you’re doing a story about sex robots, suddenly it’s weirdly about Steve Bannon. It did not turn out as expected, but it was still a great story.
Lydia Chain: Thank you so much for your time.
Brooke Borel: Yeah. Great. Thanks.
Lydia Chain: Next up we have Ashley Smart, the opinion editor for Undark. Did you have a favorite piece in your column this year?
Ashley Smart: So one piece I really liked was an op-ed by Jessica Hekman called “Pet Genetic Testing Companies Are Making Promises They Can’t Keep.”
Lydia Chain: Great headline.
Ashley Smart: She’s making the case, if you can imagine, that these pet genetic testing companies are completely unregulated, even less regulated than the human genetic testing companies. So basically they have free rein to make all these claims about what their tests can show and no one is checking them on it.
Lydia Chain: Okay. But say the testing company tells me that my mutt is part lab, and really she’s part terrier or part ridgeback. That doesn’t seem like such a big problem. What ‘s the harm being done here?
Ashley Smart: So the problem is that in addition to purporting to be able to tell pet owners about the “ancestry” of their pets, many of these companies make claims that the genetic test will also be able to predict health outcomes for the pets. So Jessica actually writes about this case where pet owners actually euthanized their dog, their pug because it tests positive for a genetic marker for a fatal neurodegenerative disease. And as it turns out, the genetic marker wasn’t a death sentence, so basically it only meant that one in 100 dogs would actually get this disease for one. A lot of the claims that these pet genetic testing companies are making really just aren’t based on sound science.
Lydia Chain: So maybe not the best Christmas present to give your dog.
Ashley Smart: Maybe not a genetic test, maybe a chew toy is the way to go this Christmas.
Lydia Chain: Thanks so much for coming on.
Ashley Smart: No problem, Lydia. Thanks for having me.
Lydia Chain: Next up, Sara Talpos, another Undark senior editor. Sara, what story do you think that we should all be thinking about as we end the year?
Sara Talpos: So the story that I am interested in is called “How Indirect Violence Gets Under a Child’s Skin — and Into the Brain.” It’s by Rod McCullom. It takes as its starting point a study that was conducted eight years ago and that study found that a killing in a child’s neighborhood could significantly lower that child’s standardized test scores. And this is even if the child didn’t witness the killing or know the victim. And he suggested that stress caused by proximity to violence could explain about half of the achievement gap between black and white students. The article reports a new study that opens a door for thinking about why this is happening. It was conducted by a team of researchers who asked kids to wear watches that measured their sleep patterns and the kids also gave spit samples three times a day so that they could measure their cortisol levels.
And what the researchers found was that both of those measures were affected the day following a violent crime in the child’s neighborhood. The article also quotes a developmental psychologist saying that subtle differences and feelings of safety can have real implications for sleep, which in turn can affect cognition, attention, and performance during the day.
So for me, I think this is an important article because trauma and violence are public health issues, but they’re not often discussed that way in the media. And so I think if we know what’s contributing to educational or health disparities, then perhaps we can figure out how to intervene early and maybe buffer some of the effects on these children.
Lydia Chain: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing it with us on the podcast today.
Sara Talpos: Sure. Thanks for asking.
Lydia Chain: Now, for a slightly different perspective is Anar Badalov, who is Undark’s communications manager and promotions editor. He’s the one that makes sure all our stories get in front of people, and I’m so curious – Anar, so many of Undark’s pieces make an impact, but is there one in particular that stood out in how it landed and reached the right people?
Anar Badalov: There’s one story from the year really stands out to me because one, it’s just a memorable piece and two, because it began to have an impact from the moment it was published, and that’s Karen Savage’s piece on food-grade hydrogen peroxide.
Lydia Chain: So usually when I think of hydrogen peroxide, I think of what my mom used to pour into like a scraped knee to clean it, but in this story people are drinking it in the hope and in the belief that it will cure diseases as serious as cancer. I mean, it’s heartbreaking. How was this piece received?
Anar Badalov: So the story got some attention from the start. It was featured at Longform, which is one of my favorite sites. It got shared a bunch on social media, but I’d say it didn’t really take off in huge way. Then a week after it went live, looking at our analytics, something really stood out to me. The story had consistently been seeing hundreds of clicks each day from Google searches. What’s more, the average time spent on the article was seven minutes, which these days is an insanely long time to spend on a page. I checked again this past week and that’s still the case. It’s now been read over 50,000 times and continues to see hundreds of reads each day. So now, when someone is doing a Google search for 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, because they heard about it on some alternative treatment forum, they won’t just see testimonials and ads pointing them to websites where they buy this stuff by the gallon. They’ll see at the very top of the results Karen’s story. Maybe it’ll give them pause or maybe at least it’ll give them some comfort.
Lydia Chain: That’s incredible. It makes me feel so good to know that among all of the other advertisements for things that are unscientific that people are being exposed to our material as well. Thank you so much Anar.
Anar Badalov: Sure. Take Care, have fun out there.
Lydia Chain: Finally, we have Tom Zeller, the editor in chief of Undark magazine. Tom, thanks so much for being here.
Tom Zeller: Thanks for having me Lydia.
Lydia Chain: So as we’re closing out this year, what should we be thinking back on and really remembering?
Tom Zeller: Well, everything that Undark does is great. I should say that at the onset. But I’m also biased. So from my point of view, the thing that I’m proudest of that Undark has done and that I hope listeners to the podcast, if they haven’t already seen it, will go and check out is our “Breathtaking” series of stories. We’ve been publishing them across the year and it’s a really deep dive and on-the-ground look at air pollution around the world. Seven different places around the globe at varying levels of economic development, and places that are struggling with different sorts of air pollution. And really kind of get down on the ground and examine what is the issue and what does this do to people’s lives. I think the latest data shows that roughly 4 million people die as a result of air pollution every year. And if you include household pollutants, that’s outdoor pollution, but if you include household like from cookstoves in large parts of the developing world that that’s almost 7 million lives affected every year. So for me, that was really sort of one of the most important things that we did this year and that I’m proudest of.
Lydia Chain: Yeah. Another thing to think about with this project that I found really compelling maybe because I’m interested in multimedia, is that it had so many intricate multimedia dimensions to it from drone videography to interactive data visualizations. Can you speak a little bit about why you thought that was important to include?
Tom Zeller: Yeah, sure. I mean, from the very beginning, this was to be a very visual project, in part because we were teaming up with Larry Price, a two-time Pulitzer prizewinning photographer. It was his work that sort of prompted us to get on the ground. And we really wanted him to capture this issue visually. In part because visuals are a much more universal language. And we also included a couple of really ambitious interactive data visualizations that were produced by Talia Bronshtein, who’s a fellow here at MIT this year and a former Stat News staffer who’s really great with taking data and turning it into something that you can kind of put your hands on and explore and move around.
And I think that that just was a no brainer. I mean, this is, this is about data. And it’s about how that data ends up … how that data ends up affecting our lives, how we live and breathe. And so unless you can see it and really kind of move around and watch those numbers fluctuate and actually go up into the red areas that are into ranges that the World Health Organization and other global health officials would consider really damaging, unless you can see that, I think it remains abstract. So that’s really why we wanted to make this a visual presentation.
Lydia Chain: Yeah. In my opinion, it’s a really fantastic and successful one. Well, thank you so much for coming on today and I’m so excited to see what is in store for next year.
Tom Zeller: Yes, me too. And thanks for giving us the opportunity to kind of do this look back. It’s really great.
Kasha Patel: Next up we are going to talk to the science adviser for President Obama, John Holdren. Here’s a fun bit of history: I was actually asked to do standup comedy at a March for Science rally and guess who I had to follow. Yup, John Holdren opened for me. Not many comedians can say that! Interviewing Holdren is Seth Mnookin. Seth is a journalist, author, and director of MIT’s graduate program in science writing. Let’s take a listen.
Seth Mnookin: It is my absolute pleasure to welcome to the Undark podcast this month, Dr. John Holdren. Dr. Holdren has had a long and illustrious career in both science and science policy for eight years under President Barack Obama. He was the chief science and technology adviser and he also was the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. And was in fact the longest serving director of the OSTP in its history. Previously, under President Clinton, he had served for two terms on PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. He is currently a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. And those are positions that he held before he joined the Obama administration and now has returned to Harvard. And is also currently serving as senior adviser to the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, one of the largest and best regarded environmental think tanks in the world. Dr. Holdren, welcome to Undark.
John Holdren: Okay. Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Seth Mnookin: So I want to just start out by asking you one thing that’s very striking about your career is that you were involved in policy and interested in science policy from pretty early on. Can you talk about how you entered into that realm of science and scientific research?
John Holdren: Well, I was interested in the interaction of science and technology with the great challenges of the human condition literally from the time I was in high school. And I had always hoped from that time to able to shape a career in which I could work in science and technology and in the connections of science and technology to these questions of population resources, environment development, international security. And I was very fortunate in being able to do that. And I managed to hang onto academic positions in part because I was fortunate to get positions in which engaging with policy was part of the mandate. So it didn’t do my career any harm that I was engaged in these policy issues.
It is true for people whose primary career is in laboratory science or theoretical science, in one or the other of the scientific disciplines that to the extent that they engage in interactions with policy that does come out of their research time. It does come out of the time that they can devote to their science. My view though is that that is very worthwhile. After all, so many of the problems that society faces today, whether we’re talking about the United States and we’re talking about global society, so many of those problems, whether they be energy, climate change, biomedicine and public health, national and international security, protection of the oceans, all of those challenges are challenges where science and technology play important roles.
And if the people who know the most about science and technology are silent in the policy discussions because they’re worried about taking away from their science careers, then the most knowledgeable voices about those important science and technology dimensions of public challenges will not be heard. And that would be a tragedy.
Seth Mnookin: Right. There are a bunch of things there that I want to come back to actually, but first I want to go back to your time in the Clinton administration when you were a part of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. And one thing, looking back at that period and then looking at today, one thing that as an outside observer that seems very striking to me is the way over the past several decades that science has become politicized, whereas in the 1990s there might’ve been different ideas about how to approach it. But there was not as much of a partisan divide around climate change. There was a general consensus that science was the most effective tool we have for understanding the world. So I guess my first question is, my impression as an outside observer, does that track with your experience as someone working in Washington?
John Holdren: Well, I think the matter of the politicization of science is actually a little bit complicated. There has long been bipartisan support for the federal government investments in basic research, in fundamental research, and to some extent early stage applied research because there has been an understanding on both sides of the aisle that the private sector is never going to invest as much in fundamental research as the interest of society as a whole would dictate. And the reason is the uncertainties are too great, the risks are too high, the timescale for potential returns is too long. And so we have benefited in this country and indeed much of the world from a symbiosis of sorts between what governments fund and what the private sector then does. And that symbiosis has pretty much been understood by both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress for quite a long time.
What got really politicized starting in the 90s was climate science in particular, energy research and development in particular. And those got politicized in part because of a Republican concern that if the public ever embraced what climate scientists were telling us, they would also embrace a regulatory regime, which Republicans wouldn’t like. But if you look at biomedical research, for example, the biomedical domain has enjoyed continued bipartisan support, not least I think because of members of Congress understand that the National Institutes of Health are working to cure the afflictions that affect members of Congress and their families. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Seth Mnookin: Right.
John Holdren: And so even when President Trump proposed a 20 percent cut in the budget of the National Institutes of Health, in his first budget presented to Congress, that Congress just rejected that, and they gave the NIH an increase instead. So it’s a complicated picture. It remains the case that it is a pretty easy sell, relatively speaking in Congress, to get support for fundamental science. And again, a real easy sell to get support for biomedical science and a harder sell to get support for climate science, for earth observations, for clean energy technology and particularly, it’s a hard sell to get support for international cooperation in science and technology. That has become even more difficult in the Trump administration than it was before because of President Trump’s stance that the United States should be great all on its own. And a lack of appreciation on President Trump’s part and many of the people he’s appointed about the enormous value that comes from international collaboration.
Seth Mnookin: Actually, I want to talk about the ways that Trump has changed some of the long-held norms around science and scientific research. But before we get into that, just briefly your role under President Obama in leading the OSTP, can you describe that role a little bit?
John Holdren: Sure. First of all, there are really two positions that have historically been held by the same person in the White House. One is director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the other position is assistant to the president for science and technology. The second position is the one that’s ordinarily simply described as the president’s science adviser. And if one has the rank in the White House of assistant to the president, then you’re one of the relatively few people who can make an appointment with the president, who basically has access to the policy discussions in the White House at the highest level, including with the president, and you have a coordinating role. The president’s science adviser, the assistant to the president for science and technology, was a full partner with the director of the Office of Management and Budget in recommending to the president finally what he should accept in the proposals from the departments and agencies for their budgets; enormously powerful and influential role.
John Holdren: The Office of Science and Technology Policy basically has three functions. One is policy for science and technology that includes the budgets and more. And that itself would be a fulltime job quite easily. By addition, the other side of the coin is science and technology for policy. And what that means is ensuring that the president and the president’s other senior advisers have the insights from science and technology that bear on whatever policy issues are on their plate. And that’s very important. The third function besides policy for science and technology and science and technology for policy, is serving as the president emissary, if you will, to the wider science and technology community.
Seth Mnookin: And when you were in those roles, you were covering a huge swath of issues including obviously climate change, but cybersecurity, nanotech, and biotech issues of antibiotic resistance, looking at the roles that science and technology can play an economic recovery. And then as is now very well known, the office, the OSTP went from having a staff of around 135 at its peak under you to roughly 30 when Trump was inaugurated. It took him 18 months to nominate a replacement, that replacement still has not been confirmed. Those are the facts of the situation. What are the risks of this type of approach of President Trump towards science broadly and towards that office specifically?
John Holdren: The perils start with missing opportunities where insights from science and technology could make more effective the government’s actions to address the public’s interests, whether it’s in relation to the economy or health or national security or conservation resource management, environmental quality, and so on. You can see the parallels and absence of science and technology advice at high levels when you look at the first couple of budgets that President Trump proposed. And the appalling characteristics and those budgets in the proposals to drastically cut science and technology of enormous importance to the public interest. It was very evident that the science and technology advice that was needed was missing.
Since that time, there has been some buildup in the staff of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and they’ve been doing, I think, some useful work on cybersecurity, on artificial intelligence, on drones. And I think one can hope that if the president’s nominee, Kelvin Droegemeier, who is a very solid scientist, an atmospheric scientist. I think if he gets confirmed that he will further ramp up both the staff and the agenda at OSTP. It’s unfortunate that he’s having such a late start. But there is no evidence that whoever the OSTP director might be, Trump himself will be listening. We just have no indication that President Trump is interested in facts, insights, [and] analysis from the domain of science. And President Trump, as we all know, announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on a global approach to addressing the challenge of climate change. So there’s a great disconnect between president Trump’s position and the position of the knowledgeable community, not just scientists and technologists, but business people who know that we should be continuing to lead in the global approach to addressing climate change in sensible ways rather than retreating.
Seth Mnookin: It is so much easier to rip something apart than to build something up. So what do you think are the lasting impacts, even if Trump is a one-term president, the lasting impacts both on these different agencies, but also what type of lasting damage could a Trump administration do environmentally in terms of dealing with issues like antibiotic resistance or cybersecurity, even nuclear arms treaties? What might we be looking at a couple of years down the line?
John Holdren: Well, I would say first of all, the last point that you mentioned, nuclear arms treaties, is one of the most prominent examples of the real harm that Trump can do. Stepping away from agreements reached after years of painstaking negotiation that reduce the dangers of nuclear war is a terrible mistake. These are big dangers and they cannot easily be reversed even if Trump is only a one-term president, which I think is an outcome devoutly to be wished because the fact is that reaching these agreements in the first place took a tremendous amount of dedicated effort by negotiators on the various sides involved. Another big source of damage that President Trump’s policies have caused is a reduction in the access of bright students and postdoctoral students from abroad coming to the United States.
John Holdren: The numbers of applications of foreign students to U.S. universities have been declining. The number of post-doctoral fellows coming to U.S. universities has been declining. We have benefited for decades by having basically an open door to talented people from other countries who want to come here and study, who want to come here and work in science and technology. And the Trump administration has already badly damaged that flow. And in the process, they are threatening U.S. global leadership in the science and technology domain.
John Holdren: And by the way, there are others who would be delighted to assume that mantle of global leadership in this domain, above all China. The other domain of lasting damage is in the climate change domain. Delays in addressing climate change can basically never be recouped. We have lost the time permanently that we needed to address climate change before it reached levels that approach unmanageable. Every day that we lose, every month, every year, every decade in advancing the deployment of clean and efficient energy technologies and building a more climate-resilient infrastructure, those losses of time are permanent. If we lose four years to Trump, that’s four years we don’t get back. We’re that much further down the road towards climate disaster. And I have to hope that we won’t lose eight years to Trump’s intransigence on this really most important of global challenges in the 21st century.
Seth Mnookin: And so my next question is, is almost an existential question. I’m not involved in science policy on any level or directly in scientific research. And there are days when I wake up and I find what’s happening under the Trump administration and the changes that are occurring to be almost too overwhelming to even think through. As someone who is so involved with these issues and who knows so intimately both the benefits and the damage that can come out of effective and ineffective policy, what do you do to sort of gird up for the fight each day to continue marching forward?
John Holdren: Well, certainly it’s been very painful for me to watch President Trump and his minions try to dismantle practically everything that we were able to accomplish in the Obama administration, in the domains of clean and efficient energy, climate change, mitigation and adaptation, protection of the oceans, protection of the Arctic, respect for insights from science and technology and their value in addressing all of the challenges on the national agenda. That’s been very painful.
The way I live with it is spending a substantial fraction of my time pushing back in every way that I can; giving speeches, giving interviews, writing op-ed pieces, and working with members of Congress, which is really, I think, where the leverage is today. I don’t think anybody, at least of all me, is going to persuade President Trump to change his views or his stance on many of these issues, but there are many people in the Congress who are much more ready to listen. We’re going to have a new set of leaders in the House of Representatives with whom I, and many other scientists and technologists who have already been meeting about the things that the House can do to push back against some of these extremely damaging policies of the Trump administration.
Seth Mnookin: I want to end talking about your fellow scientists. In a talk, you really gave a plea to the scientific community to get more involved, to become more broadly informed about science and scientific issues. And also to give a certain amount of time, 10 percent of your time to public service. Not just in terms of serving on government committees or testifying before Congress, but also to activism. Have you seen more scientists getting involved in that way?
John Holdren: There has been a really powerful emerging movement of more and more scientists and technologists becoming engaged in public education and policymaker education, in advocacy of sensible policy positions on issues where science and technology directly impact the economy, directly impact public health, directly impact national security, and so on. That has been very encouraging to me. So I advocated in 2007 in my presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that 10 percent figure as a target that all scientists and technologists would tithe 10 percent of their efforts to public education, to policymaker education, to advocacy for sensible policies where science and technology meet the public interest. Others have advocated that over the years. And we are really seeing the results now. I would mention that in addition to the increased engagement of scientists and engineers in public policy issues, we have seen the emergence since President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement of something called America’s Pledge.
The motto of America’s Pledge is we’re still in, we’re still in the Paris agreement. We’re still in our commitments to reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases. And that America’s Pledge now has in it 22 states, nearly 500 cities, many hundreds of corporations, many hundreds of universities, civil society organizations, all pledging that they’re still in. That they are going to do everything they can to see that the United States meets the commitments that President Obama made in Paris. That is very encouraging. People really are becoming more active. They’re becoming more engaged. We’ve got a lot to do, but we have a lot of people who were prepared to rise to the challenge of doing it even if their leadership in the White House has abdicated its responsibility in those domains.
Seth Mnookin: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Holdren for joining us on this month’s Undark podcast. It was a real pleasure speaking with you and we hope that we can have you back again in the future.
John Holdren: Well, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Seth Mnookin: That was Dr. John Holdren, who was President Obama’s chief science adviser and the head of the office of Science and Technology Policy. He currently is a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and a senior adviser to the president of the Woods Hole Research Center.
Kasha Patel: Ok Undark listeners, that is all for 2018. We’re produced by Lydia Chain, music is by the Undark team, and I’m your host, Kasha Patel. Happy Holidays and talk to you soon.