President-elect Barack Obama named physicist John Holdren assistant to the president and director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy on Saturday. Commonly referred to as the presidential science adviser, the position will give Holdren influence over budget allocations for nanotechnology, clean energy, space exploration, climate research and all other federal science and technology initiatives, assuming the Senate confirms him in January.
A former chairman and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Holdren gave a speech to fellow scientists earlier this year that offers a glimpse of the perspective he might lend the incoming administration (full text available here). His thoughts:
On the relationship between energy, the economy and the environment: Like a bad love triangle.
The study of these environmental impacts of energy has been a major preoccupation of mine for nearly four decades. I have concluded from this study that energy is the hardest part of the environment problem; environment is the hardest part of the energy problem; and resolving the energy-economy-environment dilemma is the hardest part of the challenge of sustainable well-being for industrial and developing countries alike.
On technology priorities: Clean energy. Now. Try everything.
The improved technologies we should be pursuing, for help not only with the energy-climate challenge but also with other aspects of the energy-economy-environment dilemma, are of many kinds: improved batteries for plug-in hybrid vehicles; cheaper photovoltaic cells; improved coal-gasification technologies to make electricity and hydrogen while capturing CO2; new processes for producing hydrogen from water using solar energy; better means of hydrogen storage; cheaper, more durable, more efficient fuel cells; biofuel options that do not compete with food production or drive deforestation; advanced fission reactors with proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and increased robustness against malfunction and malfeasance; fusion; more attractive and efficient public transportation options; and a range of potential advances in materials science, biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and process engineering that could drastically reduce the energy and resource requirements of manufacturing and food production.
On biofuels and technology’s role in the food-fuel conflict: Go, go gadget!
We need more effective use of the capabilities provided by satellite imagery and other remote sensing, and by GIS, both for conducting such studies [of projected land requirements for food, animal feed, fiber, biofuels, and infrastructure] and for conveying the results to publics and decision-makers in forms they will understand and use. And, not least, we need technologies for extracting food, fiber, and fuel from agricultural and forest ecosystems in ways less disruptive of the other services those systems provide than the technologies typically used today.