America to renew its leadership role in science

After years out in the cold, cast out by an administration seemingly hostile to reason and in thrall to the religious right, science is to reclaim its place at the forefront of US public policy.

Barack Obama has confirmed that Harvard physicist John Holdren will be his chief science advisor. The position of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology is cabinet-level, and Dr Holdren will bring to it his considerable experience in climate science, environmental policy, energy technologies and nuclear materials.

Holdren’s appointment follows that of physicist Steve Chu as head of the Department of Energy, and ecologist Jane Lubchenco as director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Harold Varmus and Eric Lander join Holdren as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“[T]he 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. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”

It will take much to undo the damage caused by the Bush administration, but Obama and his team at least have the right attitude. That said, there will be many voices competing for the attention of the new government in Washington DC, and it will take more than an eloquent speech and a few strategic appointments to triumph over the obscurantists who for years have dominated the science policy arena across the Pond.