Restoring Science to Its Rightful Place: Senior Presidential Advisor Reports on Science and Technology Policy in the Obama Administration at Stevens Institute of Technology Lecture Series


Dr. John P. Holdren speaking at a podium

Hoboken, N.J. – That the Obama Administration has “stepped up to support science, technology and innovation”  was the overarching message of a speech by Dr. John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), at the second installation of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Stevens President Nariman Farvardin called Holdren “one of the world’s most influential voices in science and technology” during his introductory remarks in front of a capacity crowd of more than 500, and Holdren responded by delivering a fascinating insider’s look at how President Barack Obama has fulfilled his famous first-term inauguration pledge to “restore science to its rightful place.”

Holdren – who earned advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was previously a professor at Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley – is Obama’s senior advisor on virtually all scientific and technical issues that matter to the nation.

The scope of Holdren’s office, the OSTP, is incredibly vast. With a staff of 100 and a $5.9 million annual budget, the OSTP is responsible for providing accurate, relevant and timely scientific and technical advice to the President; ensuring executive policies are informed by sound science; and effectively coordinating the scientific and technical work and budgets of dozens of federal departments, offices and agencies.

Through the OSTP, Holdren oversees the National Science & Technology Council (NSTC), including the heads of the NSF, NIH, NASA and NOAA, and dozens of other agencies responsible for information technology R&D, global climate change research, nanotechnology initiatives, emerging technology policy, national oceans policy, and international innovation policy. The OSTP also manages the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), of which Holdren is co-chair.

“The place of science in the White House is centered in the OSTP,” said Holdren.

Under the Obama Administration, the role of the OSTP has gained significance. Holdren said Obama recognizes that science, technology and innovation are essential to meeting the challenges facing the nation – perhaps more than any previous U.S. President – and is extremely committed to pursuing cutting-edge initiatives that can lead to game-changing innovation in every sector of American society.

Holdren explained how federal support for America’s scientific and technological enterprise has increased since Obama took office, as the nation works to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” Federal policies – including both new initiatives or resurrected existing initiatives – have called for innovation in healthcare, energy, the environment, education, information technology, security and a wide range of other areas that are critical to improving U.S. competitiveness and national welfare.

“Many of the activities of the OSTP didn’t exist or were dormant prior to the Obama Administration,” Holdren said.

In healthcare, the Obama Administration – spearheaded by recommendations of the OSTP – has supported the adoption of electronic medical records, worked to improve influenza-vaccine manufacturing, and supported embryonic stem cell and other promising approaches to treat disease. The goal is to both lower costs in healthcare and enable Americans to lead longer and healthier lives. 

In energy and the environment, the Obama Administration has created policies to protect against the impacts of global climate change, support sustainable development and foster cleaner sources of energy. The Recovery Act of 2009 devoted $80 billion for clean and efficient energy. The Obama Administration has also pushed for fuel economy standards for trucks, encouraged the federal government to use renewable sources of energy, promoted sustainable agriculture and worked to create green jobs.

Advancing the information technology sector is another major priority of the Obama Administration, bringing government transparency, enabling better communication and collaboration, and making America more safe and secure. It launched to give greater access to information and services from the U.S. government. The U.S. Ignite program makes broadband construction both faster and cheaper. Obama has also supported “big data” computing and taken steps to protect America against the “cyber threat.”

Another priority of the Obama Administration is cultivating the next generation of skilled, educated, science-savvy Americans by boosting education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Policies like “Race to the Top,” “Educate to Innovate” and the STEM Master Teacher Corps serve to emphasize innovation in the K-12 STEM curricula and create more effective STEM teachers, with the goal of restoring America to the top of international science and math test scores and producing more college graduates trained in the STEM fields.

Holdren readily admits that not nearly every science and technology policy recommended by the OSTP, the agencies it oversees, or the President himself have been able to be implemented, given budget constraints and lack of Congressional support. While those challenges remain a factor, in Obama’s second term the priorities will remain the same – to encourage smart investments in science and technology to contribute to economic prosperity, public health, environmental quality and national security.

“Science and technology matter critically to the national agenda,” Holdren said, which he reiterated in his post-presentation comments to Stevens faculty members and students.

For 143 years, Stevens has operated under the belief that science and technology are central to meeting the most pressing and complex challenges facing America. The university is doing its part to address the needs of the American people by pursuing its mission to educate leaders in tomorrow’s technology-centric environment while contributing to the solution of the most challenging problems of our time.

Launched this year, Stevens’ 10-year strategic planThe Future. Ours to Create., calls for growth in education and research in five critical areas – healthcare and medicine, sustainable energy, financial systems, defense and security, and STEM education. Innovation and progress in these sectors of society will make America healthier, safer and more globally competitive.

The President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which launched in fall 2012, offers unprecedented access to influential scientists, technologists, policymakers, and business executives at technology driven companies who are shaping 21st century society, in direct alignment with Stevens’ own mission. The series focuses on important topics in science and technology, the linkages between societal issues and advances in science and technology, and related policy issues.

Holdren’s lecture was made possible in part through a gift from Stevens alumnus Dr. William W. Destler ’68, the president of Rochester Institute of Technology.

Watch Holdren's lecture in full on the Stevens YouTube channel

About Stevens Institute of Technology

Stevens Institute of TechnologyThe Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, more than 6,100 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 350 faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense and STEM education. The university is the fastest-rising college in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the best national universities, and it is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs, and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.