"Spotlight: John Holdren"
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Science, Technology, and Public Policy
John Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, is director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program and professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science. He is professor emeritus of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, director of the Woods Hole Research Center, co-chair of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
John Holdren can pinpoint two books that set the trajectory of his career.
He was a high school student in San Mateo, California in the 1950s when he first came across C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a book that demonstrates an increasing gulf between the cultures of science/technology and the humanities and argues that society’s problems cannot be understood or solved without insights from both. Caught up in the challenge presented by Snow, he read geochemist Harrison Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future, which suggested that global problems of population, resources, development and security are so tightly intertwined that none of them can be solved unless we solve them all. Poverty creates conflict; population growth undermines prosperity.
Convinced that Snow and Brown were right, Holdren determined to learn more about both cultures and work on big global issues where they intersect. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautics and astronautics and minored in humanities. He earned his PhD in theoretical plasma physics at Stanford University with a growing focus on nuclear and alternative energy technologies.
It was also at Stanford that Holdren met Paul Ehrlich, a biologist whose ideas had a “huge influence” on his future. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, argued that humanity was headed toward major disasters unless it changed course.
While at MIT and Stanford, Holdren did summer and consulting work on satellite and missile technology at the Lockheed Corporation, and later joined the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as a physicist in the fusion energy program. After a brief stint at Caltech working with Harrison Brown, in 1973 he joined the faculty of UC Berkeley, where he put his own mark on the interplay of the sciences and social sciences by co-founding a campus-wide, interdisciplinary, graduate-degree program in energy and resources. For the next 23 years, he would build that program while teaching, researching, writing, and traveling worldwide to understand, find, and apply solutions to problems of energy, environment, development, and security.
Holdren served from 1994 to 2001 as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) where he chaired studies requested by the President on nuclear-materials protection, U.S. energy R&D strategy, and international cooperation on energy.
From 1993 through 2004, Holdren also served as chair of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, overseeing studies on nuclear weapons, materials, and policies, and on technical issues related to ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as well as leadership of bilateral interactions with similar committees in Russia, China, and India.
The need to spend substantial time in Washington, D.C. was one of the factors that motivated Holdren to shift his academic base of operations from Berkeley to Cambridge. Another was his long-standing promise to his wife, biologist Cheryl Holdren, that they would spend half of their married life in New England, where she grew up. In July of 1996, he started his new position as a professor both in the Kennedy School and in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, at the same time succeeding Lewis Branscomb as director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program in the Belfer Center.
“I wanted to continue to be in an interdisciplinary academic environment where one works not just to understand the world but to influence it for the better,” Holdren said. “The Kennedy School of Government obviously has that dual mission, and the Belfer Center offered a highly interdisciplinary setting with first class people to interact with.”
Holdren’s current work focuses on climate change, energy strategy, and nuclear nonproliferation. He and his teams at the Belfer Center conduct cutting-edge research to underpin policy proposals they pursue in the “real world”— focused, for example, on strengthening protection of nuclear-weapon-usable materials in Russia, on improving vehicle fuel economy in China, on reducing emissions of climate altering and health-damaging emissions of black soot in India, and on accelerating energytechnology innovation in the United States.
As co-chair of the bipartisan, foundation funded National Commission on Energy Policy since 2002, Holdren helped to craft a number of policy recommendations that were enacted into law in the 2005 Energy Act, including incentives for the deployment of “clean coal” technologies and revisions in the tax code to encourage more private-sector energy R&D.
The Commission continues to work with Congressional leaders on legislation to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
As President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the largest general science society in the world and the publisher of the journal SCIENCE—Holden’s focus is on strengthening efforts worldwide “to deploy science and technology more effectively in support of sustainable well-being for all of the Earth’s inhabitants.” An important part of this focus is addressing the challenge of climate change. “Global climate change is the most dangerous and the most difficult of all the environmental problems that humans have ever caused and probably will ever cause,” Holdren says in a AAAS video. “We are in the situation of driving an automobile with bad brakes toward a cliff . . . in the fog,” he says. “The auto is the world’s energy-economic system and the cliff is climate-change catastrophe. We don’t know exactly where the cliff is because of the uncertainties in climate science —the fog—but that is hardly a consolation, or a reason not to try to slow down.”
Holdren’s journey has been highlighted by several prominent distinctions, including one of the first MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards in 1981 and, in 1995, acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
Holdren and his wife have two children and five grandchildren. Time with his family is a priority even as he maintains a huge workload. He also finds a little time for a hobby— fishing. Maybe it’s the lure of solving smaller, simpler tasks rather than big problems for awhile—or, maybe it’s just the lure itself.
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