An expert on energy and climate, Holdren has been vocal on the issue of global warming, and his appointment has been seen as indication the Obama administration plans to be far more active on climate change than its predecessor.
"The President-elect found not only a scientist of the highest caliber, but someone who has been steeped in policy," wrote Bart Gordon, the Democratic Tennessee representative who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, in an e-mail. "This is a strong message that science will no longer be kept at an arm's length in the White House."
Holdren currently directs the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and holds a joint appointment at the Kennedy School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He has also run the Woods Hole Research Center for the past three years and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006.
Obama announced his nomination of Holdren to the post—formally known as assistant to the President for science and technology—during his weekly radio broadcast on Saturday, Dec. 20. The position, which also includes directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy, requires Senate confirmation after Obama assumes office on Jan. 20.
In his address, Obama hinted at a break with the Bush administration’s politics-driven science policy. “The truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources. It's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology," he said.
Holdren could not be reached for comment, but in a statement released by the Kennedy School, he said the opportunity to work with President-elect Obama and his team was "the greatest opportunity—and the greatest responsibility—of my professional life."
Henry Lee '68, director of the Kennedy School's Environment and Natural Resources Program, who was scheduled to co-teach a Kennedy School course on energy policy with Holdren this spring, said he was not surprised Holdren was chosen for such an important position.
"When he was at the University of California in the '80s and the first half of the '90s, I heard about his reputation in the United States as the top person in his field," Lee said. "I don't think his reputation has diminished much since he's been here."
Holdren graduated from MIT in 1965, earned a master's degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Stanford in aerospace engineering and plasma physics. He taught at the University of California at Berkeley for nearly 25 years before coming to Harvard in 1996.
But his experience has not been confined to academia. From 1994-2001, Holdren served on President Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. Since 2002, he has served as co-chair of the National Commission on Energy Policy. Holdren was also a lead author of the UN Scientific Expert Group's 2007 report on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.
Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center, said Holdren's main asset is his interest in using science as a diplomatic tool in relations with developing countries.
"The only way to solve global problems is to share science and technologies," Juma said. "From my perspective, that's a new element that John would bring to the presidency that we have not seen in the past."
Lee said the Kennedy School has known since the fall that Holdren might be named to the post and has planned accordingly. Lee will teach the course on his own in the spring, though he said Holdren will be missed.
"When you have the best in the country, it's hard when he leaves," he said.
Asked about what the loss of Holdren would mean for the Kennedy School, Lee said that when a faculty member is named the chief science adviser in the United States, it is hard to see it as a loss.
"One might say this is simply a reaffirmation of why the Kennedy School is a special place," he said.
—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.