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Here's to Holdren

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View Tom Turner's blog posts
24 December 2008, 6:00 AM

As we said in our last missive, the emerging Obama team, cabinet and otherwise, is looking very promising with a few question marks. The president-elect is said to enjoy having people of differing views around him and listening as they discuss their differences, which is a healthy attitude. The truth will out and all that.

But today I want to say a word or two about the only one of these worthies that I know personally. I'm talking about John Holdren, just named scientific advisor to the president. I don't think Mr. Obama could have made a better pick from all 300 million Americans, though I confess I don't know them all.

John is a physicist, also an expert on energy, climate, and proliferation among other subjects. I met him when he was teaching at Cal and putting together the Energy and Resources Group, which has trained many, many outstanding people. John is brilliant, and he can navigate the rocky shoals of bureaucracies, both academic and governmental.

He left Berkeley for the East Coast several years ago (a long-standiing promise to his wife, Cherie, is what I heard). At the moment he's teaching at the Kennedy school at Harvard and running the Woods Hole biological station. From 2006 to 2007 he was also president of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest and arguably most influential such organization.

I saw John in action up close most intimately during the 1976 campaign to pass a "nuclear initiative" in California that aimed to stop the building of new nuclear plants until fundamental problems of waste disposal, safety, and insurability were solved. John was a leading proponent of the proposition and debated industry shills endlessly and effectively. We lost—the other side outspent us 10 to one or so—but the legislature felt the heat and passed three laws that did most of what the initiative would have done—and no new nuclear plant has been built in the state since then.

I have no real understanding of the science advisor's role and influence within the administration. I expect it varies a good deal from on administration to another (If Bush had such an advisor either he or she was dishonest, corrupt, or ignored.).

I can say, with confidence, however, that if President Obama takes Dr. Holdren's advice seriously and acts on it, we can look forward to the next years with optimism and, yes, hope.

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