Former White House Science Adviser: Cuts To Science Programs Will Have Dire Consequences

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John Holdren, who spent eight years as President Obama's chief science adviser, is now a professor at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
John Holdren, who spent eight years as President Obama's chief science adviser, is now a professor at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Local scientists are taking part in a nationwide march this Saturday to protest threats facing science programs.

Naomi Oreskes, who teaches the history of science at Harvard, says she will participate in the March for Science. She's worried about President Trump's repeated claims that climate change is a hoax and his plans to cut funding to multiple science agencies.

"This is a unique moment where science is under attack in a way that has never been seen in our lifetime," said Oreskes.

Another scientist joining the march is John Holdren, who spent eight years serving as Obama's chief science adviser. He's now teaching at Harvard and leading the Woods Hole Research Center. Holdren says the march sends a very important message to the community.

He joined Morning Edition to discuss the march and the issues facing the scientific community.

Holdren: Science is not just another profession full of workers who are worried about losing their jobs if federal government's support for science is slashed. Which, if President Trump’s budget is honored by Congress, it would be. But it is an essential ingredient in good government, and if there’s no science and technology advice in government, there are going to be some bad decisions made.

Oakes: But despite what you say, there will be people on the other end of the radio listening to this who are going to say this really is just scientists trying to protect their jobs and their funding.

Holdren: Well, I would say, first of all, if scientists were mainly interested in their salaries, they would probably be in another line of work. Most scientists could make a lot more money doing something else. Yes, scientists are a special interest group. Their interest is increasing understanding of ourselves, our world, our universe and applying those understandings to improve our economy, public health, the environment and national security, and I say those are interests that scientist could be proud of — not embarrassed by.

Oakes: In the White House budget plan, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, also Department of Agriculture research, all might get cut. Can I ask what concerns you most?

Holdren: The federal government funds most of the basic research the fundamental research, which is the seed corn from which all applied innovation eventually is going to come. And if government research is cut back what that's going to mean above all is cutting back on basic research and cutting back on biomedical research.

I do very much hope that Congress will not accept a nearly $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health, which is, in the world, the driving force behind developing better therapies and, ultimately, cures for cancer; for developing better therapies and ultimate cures for Alzheimer's, for Parkinson's, for diabetes. I mean, the idea of cutting the budget of the world's leading biomedical research operation by $6 billion out of a budget of about $30 billion — so we're talking about a 20 percent cut at NIH — this would be nuts. And again, we have to hope that Congress won't do it. But the fact that the president wants to do it is telling us something very unsettling about his priorities.

Oakes: We spoke to former Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz who said that he thinks Trump's plans to cut funding for science agencies may just pose a setback that is more or less temporary but I take it you don't quite see it that way.

Holdren: Well, first of all, if we're lucky the setbacks will be mostly temporary. But let me give you an example of a setback that would not be a temporary that could not be reversed. And that is, if we stopped collecting data on the state of our environment, the state of our climate, if as President Trump has proposed, we cancel various NASA satellite programs that are monitoring what's happening to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, what's happening to the ice in the Antarctic and in the Arctic, the gaps in data that are produced can never be restored. You can't go back in time and make those measurements again. They're gone forever. That will be very unfortunate for our understanding of what is happening in our world.

Oakes: What are you hoping the marches will accomplish? What's the end goal?

Holdren: We are, in the march, aiming for the broader public, to convey a message to the role of science and technology in society and, of course, through the public, Congress. I’ve made it very clear that my main hope about budgets is that Congress will not accept the proposals in President Trump’s budget for science.

Oakes: Should scientists, who are usually viewed as apolitical and objective, get involved in politics?

Holdren: In short, it’s yes. And the reason is that science is already politicized. A huge set of government decisions are already made in a political process, and if the scientific community, who have perhaps a better position than most to judge the stakes in these political decisions, is not willing to participate as citizens in that political process, then one of the most important voices will be absent.


Headshot of Bob Oakes

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.


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Yasmin Amer Executive Producer, Radio Boston
Yasmin Amer is Executive Producer of WBUR's Radio Boston.



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