John Holdren Charts The Future Of Science How will the Obama administration ramp up science and technology in America? John Holdren, the president's chief science adviser, explains the strategy for supporting research in the U.S., lays out his plan for climate change and gives his take on the future NASA.
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John Holdren Charts The Future Of Science

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John Holdren Charts The Future Of Science

John Holdren Charts The Future Of Science

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This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. President Obama has been talking a lot about ramping up science in America.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology.

FLATOW: But how is he going to do it? And the bigger question is: How is he going to fund it? For some answers, we're going to talk to John Holdren, the new science and technology advisor to the White House. We'll ask him about strategies for education, climate change, NASA, some other big science issues.

Holdren has been pushing for action against climate change for a while. He's gotten a lot of flak for some comments he made about using geo-engineering to cool the planet. We're going to give him a chance to talk more about that and explain it.

He also said the greatest asset of this administration is the president's enthusiasm for science. Yesterday the White House and NASA released their vision for the future of space exploration, so we'll talk about the president, his enthusiasm, NASA, every kind of thing that you might talk about with the president's science advisor, because this is your chance to talk with John Holdren.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Also, you can tweet us @scifri, that's @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and we're right there in Second Life, finding the Science Friday Island, and don't be afraid to communicate with us. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Let me formally introduce my guest. Dr. John Holdren is the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Executive Office of the President. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Holdren.

Dr. JOHN HOLDREN (President's Science Advisor): Thanks very much, glad to be here.

FLATOW: Why did you accept this job?

Dr. HOLDREN: I think it was an irresistible opportunity. This president is, as you've already said, enthusiastic about science and technology. He is well-informed about science and technology. He understands their connections to the big challenges the country faces. He's made it clear that he wants science and technology to be at the center of how the government thinks about these challenges and how it responds to them. Who in the science and technology community wouldn't jump at the chance to work with this president on that set of issues?

FLATOW: And how do you see your role? Because there are different divisions of the government. You have the EPA, you have other kinds of science-related organizations. Where do you fit into that big picture?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, Ira, you do have a huge array of science and technology capabilities in the Cabinet departments, in other agencies such as the EPA, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and indeed in other offices in the White House.

FLATOW: Energy…

Dr. HOLDREN: On environmental quality. The role of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the role of the science advisor are, above all, to make sure that the science and technology advice that get to the president and the vice president are as objective and free of political agendas as possible.

Secondly, we have the responsibility of keeping track of what's going on across that whole array of Cabinet departments, agencies and offices, trying to make sure that it is integrated, that people are communicating with each other, that they're cooperating with each other, so that the science and technology operations of the executive branch are a coherent whole rather than a scattered set of operations in all those different entities.

So it's really my job to work cooperatively with all those other people in the science and technology slots around the government, and there are a lot of them, and there are a lot of very good people, thanks in part in the top positions to the other appointments that this president has made.

FLATOW: There's so many things to talk about. We have just the whole hour to do that, and less than that now as I keep babbling on. So let's see if we can get to some of these issues. 1-800-989-8255.

There has been a recent call for comments to help the president draft recommendations for scientific integrity. Are you getting good information here?

Dr. HOLDREN: Yeah, we are. We have a blog up. We spent the first part of the 120 days we had from the president's executive order to produce science integrity guidelines, surveying what the various Cabinet departments and agencies already do. We've compiled that information, we started to think about what needs to be added, what needs to be better coordinated, and we've opened it up to public comment on the OSTP Web site.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the issues. There was a release yesterday about a new direction for NASA and the space agency, which doesn't have a chief as of yet. Are we changing our mission in space now?

Dr. HOLDREN: No, we're not changing the mission in space. What was announced yesterday was a blue-ribbon panel to review the options for pursuing our missions in space. We have achieved a great deal in space. We've been a leader in space. It's become important to our economy, to Earth observation, to national security as well as to understanding our place in the universe, but we have some challenges.

We have a gap coming up in the capacity to put astronauts in space on American launchers between the time the shuttle program is scheduled to end, at the end of 2010, and the availability of the next-generation launcher, which is scheduled to be 2015, 2016, sometime in that time frame. So that's one challenge.

Another challenge is that the International Space Station, in which we've made a tremendous investment, along with other countries, needs some thought as to how we can extend its usefulness beyond 2016. Another challenge is the question of when are we going to go back to the moon? When are we going to go beyond? How can those aspirations be reconciled with the other needs within NASA and with the budget?

So we're standing up a blue-ribbon panel, it's going to be chaired by Norm Augustine, to take a fresh look at the options for how are we going to meet all these goals, what are the ways we could do it? But it's not - we certainly did not announce a change in vision. We announced a fresh look at the options for achieving our vision.

FLATOW: President Bush did set a date for going back to the moon. Are you saying that date now is on the table, or it's up in the air, or we don't know?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, indeed, President Bush announced a grand vision with specific dates, but he never did provide the budget that would be consistent with getting there, and so obviously one of the things we have to look at under realistic budget constraints is whether that date is attainable or not.

FLATOW: And as far as dividing the budget between people in space and robotics in space, which have achieved so much, is that also a priority that you'll be looking at?

Dr. HOLDREN: I think we're going to continue to have a balance going forward. We understand a good deal about what robots in space can do, and it's a lot, but there are other things for which humans and their urge to explore are at the forefront, and we want to be able to continue with that.

There are other questions of balance between, for example, looking up and looking down: the Hubble, which is important, looking up; the Earth observation satellites that are important looking down.

We also have aeronautics in NASA's name, and aeronautics has suffered some in recent years. We need to restore a more substantial level of activity in the aeronautics side.

FLATOW: And one of the great problems any president and any science advisor would face is this giant question of energy production, the different forms that the energy production could take: coal, nuclear, alternative energies. How will you decide, and how will this administration decide, which one of those and how much money to devote to each one of those?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, there are multiple, interlocking questions there, Ira. One is what is the role of the federal government versus the role of the private sector and the marketplace, and we expect in this market-driven economy that in the end the choices about the energy portfolio are largely going to be made by consumers and by the private sector.

But we want to be sure in terms of the federal involvement that we have adequate investment in research and development to produce the menu of options from which the marketplace is going to choose, and we want to be sure that that marketplace includes consideration of problems like climate change, pollution of other kinds, and other environmental impacts that wouldn't be in the economic balance sheets, the decision-making factors affecting consumers and firms, unless the government took action.

FLATOW: Well, do you see the role of the government as trying to stimulate the marketplace in one direction or another, let's say to one form of energy production by tax credits or any other kind of stimulation?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, clearly, a major priority going forward, and the president has been very clear about this, is to get our arms around the climate-change challenge, and that is going to require a set of market signals that favor energy options that don't emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases or at least emit far smaller quantities of those heat-trapping gases than the fossil-fuel technologies on which we mainly rely today.

So you can expect - and again, the president has already been completely clear about this - you can expect going forward the president to push for a cap on carbon pollution. You can look for a variety of other measures designed to make it more attractive, to deploy renewable energy options and other energy options that do not emit greenhouse gases.

FLATOW: The president also said during his campaign that he believes in clean coal.

Dr. HOLDREN: I think he does. So do I. I think we have no choice but to clean up our coal technologies, and the reason for that, the United States still gets 50 percent of all of its electricity from coal. No matter what else you do with solar, with nuclear, with anything else you can think of, you're not going to change that heavy coal dependence overnight, and it therefore makes sense for us, as well as for the Chinese, the Indians, the Australians, many others who use large quantities of coal, to figure out how to do it without emitting the large quantities of carbon dioxide, not to mention other pollutants, that have been associated with coal-burning.

FLATOW: But we haven't really found a way. It has not been tested fully yet, has it, sequestration of coal?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, the way to capture carbon dioxide and sequester it away from the atmosphere, I mean, certainly technologically the capacity to capture carbon dioxide has been demonstrated, and the capacity to inject it back into the ground has been demonstrated. But we haven't integrated it at all at full commercial scale, and that's something we need to move ahead smartly to get done.

We need to move to the level of integrated demonstration plants that show that, in fact, at commercial scale you can capture carbon dioxide. You can inject it into suitable geologic formations, from which it will not emerge for a very, very long time. And again, the United States is not the only country working on that. The Europeans are working on it, the Japanese are working on it, the Chinese are working on it. I think before long the Indians will be working on it. Pretty much everybody around the world who depends on coal understands that we simply have no choice but to master the technologies to bring its carbon pollution under control.

FLATOW: Okay, we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Dr. John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk to us, also on @scifri on Twittering, that's our tweet. And in Second Life. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. 1-800-989-8255. Dr. Holdren, I want to read you a headline from the New York Times. It says, U.S. drops research into fuel cells for cars. Why?

Dr. HOLDREN: The basis of that decision is the judgment of the secretary of energy, in which I concur, that fuel cells are a long way off in terms of the potential to make a substantial impact on our economy, on our energy system, on our emissions.

There are many options that are closer to widespread application and that can achieve much of the same thing. Fuel cells depend on hydrogen. Hydrogen is expensive to produce, it's difficult to store. And while I think that fuel cells will ultimately be important in the U.S. energy economy and around the world, they're not going to have a substantial impact probably for 20 years or more, and when you're looking for how to optimize the impact of the expenditure of taxpayers' money, you sometimes make decisions based on what's going to work sooner rather than later.

FLATOW: Yeah. What about battery research for cars?

Dr. HOLDREN: Battery research is going up. It's going up in the private sector, it's going up in the public sector. I think we're going to see major advances in battery technology over the years immediately ahead, and that is going to make possible cost-effective and very attractive plug-in hybrid vehicles which will be even more fuel-economical than the hybrids that are available today that are not plug-ins, except by special modification.

FLATOW: Do you also believe that we should be investing in nuclear power and building new nuclear-generating capacity?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I think, first of all, yes, we should be investing in nuclear energy. We should be investing in approaches to addressing the difficulties that have prevented us from expanding nuclear energy to a greater extent up until now.

We should be doing research that is addressed at making nuclear energy more cost-effective. We should be doing research to address the problem of how we manage the radioactive waste. We should be doing more research to reduce the linkages between nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I do think that if we could get an expanded contribution from nuclear energy, it would be a tremendous help in addressing the climate-change challenge, which is almost without question the toughest part of the energy challenges we face.

In addition, going back to the previous point, if we did have plug-in hybrid vehicles, you could finally have nuclear energy, as well as renewable forms of electricity generation, making a contribution to motor-vehicle energy consumption, and that would be terrific.

FLATOW: If we don't have - if we have not solved the waste-disposal problem, how can we move forward on building plants?

Dr. HOLDREN: The approach to waste disposal can take a number of different forms. Right now what we're doing is we're storing the radioactive wastes at the reactors in fuel-storage pools and what's called dry-cask storage.

We could, if we chose, build at a variety of places around the country, engineered interim nuclear-waste-storage facilities, basically steel-reinforced concrete facilities that would contain the radioactive waste safely for a century or more while we explored what the best geologic options would be for the longer term.

So we're not without options for dealing with our radioactive waste, but I think everybody will be more comfortable about expanding nuclear energy once we have chosen a particular path, and that is why the secretary of energy has announced the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to look again at the options that the country has for radioactive waste management going forward. There are, again, a variety of those options, and I trust that that blue-ribbon panel will be helpful in steering the country toward a choice that will enable us to proceed.

FLATOW: Let's turn a little bit to something that you brought up before, and it is really an 800-pound gorilla, and that is climate change, global warming. How big of a problem does this administration view that, and how much are the alarm bells going off up there in Washington?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, again, the president has been very clear about this. He's been clear through the campaign, he's been clear in many, many speeches he's given since he was inaugurated. He sees climate change as a major challenge, but also, as with many challenges, a major opportunity.

It's going to drive innovation. It's going to lead to the development of new technologies and new businesses that are able to deliver the energy services that people want while reducing the carbon pollution that we produce, and we're going to get it done.

He is on record repeatedly as saying in this country, we need a set of climate-change targets and mechanisms for getting there that will reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gasses by something like 14 percent before the 2005 levels by 2020 and that will reduce them by more than 80 percent by 2050.

That is a big task, but the ambitiousness of those goals underlines how the president sees the importance of this problem. This is something that, for ourselves and as our contribution to the rest of the world, we need to get right, while helping everybody else to get it right too, because this is a problem that the United States cannot solve by itself.

FLATOW: Are we talking about a carbon tax here? Are we talking about cap and trade? Are we talking about - just what? And what methods are we looking at in our…

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, again, there are many different ways to go at it, but economists will tell you that the most efficient ways - that is, the ways to reduce carbon pollution most - at the lowest possible cost, are likely to be found by putting economic incentives to do it out there and letting the private sector and ingenuity determine the most economical ways to proceed.

There are basically two approaches that fall in that category. One is a tax, and the other is the so-called cap-and-trade system, putting a cap on carbon pollution and having tradable permits that determine who gets to do the emissions and how much they pay for them.

In the U.S. political environment at the moment, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the approach to capping carbon pollution, rather than taxing it, will be the one that is embraced. That's the one that's embodied in the bill currently being debated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S. Congress. It's the one the president advocated during his campaign. And again, he was very clear about that. He said he wanted to use the cap-and-trade approach. He wants to auction 100 percent of the permits, and there's now, of course, proceeding in the government the usual complicated process.

The House will produce a bill. We trust eventually the Senate will produce a bill. There'll be an attempt to get those bills reconciled and to come out ultimately with something that the president will be willing to sign.

My hope, and the president's hope, is that that happens sooner rather than later, because this really is a challenge on which we need to get going.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones. Richard in Ithaca. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello there. I've got a question about artificial intelligence research, and specifically, there's been a recent resurgence of interest in what you might call real AI, but it's called artificial general intelligence. And it's a very high-risk but high-payoff kind of research, and right now it's pretty much getting no funding at all, and the only prominent researchers are either moving to China or thinking about it. And I just wonder if you're aware of that situation and if there's anything you're thinking about doing about it?

FLATOW: Thanks, Richard.

Dr. HOLDREN: I am not familiar with the details of the funding situation for artificial intelligence research. I am familiar with the problem that increasingly, over the last several years, more and more of our research funding from the government has been focused on shorter-term objectives and not so much on high-risk, high-potential return, longer-term research.

We really need a portfolio that has some of each. We have some particular institutions in the government that historically have funded the longer-term, higher-risk, more transformational kinds of research. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a good example. The National Science Foundation funds a lot of fundamental research with these long-term capabilities.

We are setting up an ARPA-E, an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy to do some of the long-term transformative stuff in the energy domain. I would say from my soundings in the science and technology community that there are a lot of folks who believe that we need to restore a greater emphasis on the fundamental research, on the longer-term, higher-risk areas. And the president very strongly endorsed that in the speech he gave at the National Academy of Sciences just over a week ago.

FLATOW: Let's go to Dawn in St. Louis. Hi, Dawn.

DAWN (Caller): Hi. I am also from Detroit, Michigan. We recently left Detroit, Michigan. I was a senior research scientist, retired from a major company, which is now part of Honeywell. I was never, ever recognized, over the course of 10 years, and I got tired of asking the Equal Opportunity Employment people to represent me, never recognized in the patent award ceremonies.

I no longer practice science. However, I married a scientist. And he has been the only technically competent Ph.D. in many, many, many startup companies' batteries run by marketing people that has failed, failed, failed.

I want to know - tell me, if you have daughters and Obama has daughters, how do you encourage them? And why in the world would you encourage your children to go into the sciences?

My daughter is entering a Ph.D. program. And my heart of hearts wants to say to her, why would you go into sciences? The only place that is making money is marketing and advertising.

Tell me, why would you encourage your children to go into science? Why would you encourage scientists to continue with science? Thank you.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, first of all, I do have a daughter and I have four granddaughters, and I have encouraged all of them to realize that they can do whatever they want to do. They can succeed in whatever they want to succeed at if they pursue it with sufficient determination.

That is not to say that there aren't obstacles out there that are higher, in many cases, for women as they also are for minorities in science and technology as well as in other domains.

In this administration, we will do everything we can to lower those barriers. The president is committed to diversity in the science and technology workplace as well as elsewhere. We understand what some of those barriers are, and we certainly hope to succeed in knocking them down.

There are - in spite of the barriers that have existed - a lot of women who have succeeded in science and technology. I look at the membership rolls of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and while they are far from balanced in terms of gender, never mind also in terms of minorities, the trends are in the right direction. We are doing better and we're going to do better still.

FLATOW: Thank you, Dawn.

DAWN: But how is it that marketing is - in managing these companies rather than technically competent Ph.D.s and scientists?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that in way is a separate question. I have also found the same thing. That many of the venture capital companies in the energy field don't seem to have anybody who is technically very deep in energy. And that is going to lead to some of those companies to fail.

I think it is a fact of modern life that if you're going to be in the high technology business, you better have some folks on board who understand high technology. And I'm afraid the marketplace is going to brutally sort out people who don't respect that lesson.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about science with Dr. John Holdren this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY for NPR NEWS.

And one riddle, Dr. Holdren, that we've been trying to figure out is where do all the science graduates go to? There was - there would - I'm talking about American graduates. You know, we keep hearing about bringing in foreign students, foreign graduates do the jobs here. But if you look at the data and you look at studies by, for example, the Urban Institute, which found that there were three times as many qualified science and engineers for the jobs that were available to them, three times as many, and they just did not go into the sciences. They didn't stay. They went to Wall Street, maybe they're not going there anymore. Maybe we need more of them there, or they went to these other jobs. Why can't we keep them as scientists?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I think that's a very complicated question. My own view is that the needs and the opportunities for scientists, for engineers, for mathematicians - and I would say this applies to the social sciences as well - those needs are increasing. And if we are failing to have the capacity to absorb the scientists and engineers and mathematicians that we're training, we got to fix that.

FLATOW: And it's the same thing with teachers. You know, we're not turning out science teachers.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well - and we need more of them. And this, again, is a very high priority for this president. The science, technology, engineering and math education is something in which we need to do much better, not only to be sure that we train the next generation of scientists and engineers who are going to help us with the array of challenges we face in the economy and in the environment and energy and so on, but also so that we have a population of voters who are sufficiently literate about science and technology that they can participate effectively in a democracy where more and more of the policy issues have science and technology components to them.

FLATOW: Can the federal government do something to influence the direction the teachers go? And can they encourage...

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, the federal government is doing a number of things. In the stimulus package, we have an enormous increase in funding for education. Part of that, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pursuing with great energy and determination, is the science, technology, engineering and math component.

We've got a program called Race to the Top in which the science and technology component is going to be important.

We have a set of state governors, led by Governor Rendell, who are moving to make sure that stimulus money that has gone to their states for education is used in part for science and technology education. We're going to use that to ramp up the training of science and technology teachers. We're going to use it to increase the quality of science and engineering laboratories in our schools, so that kids learn science and engineering by doing it rather than just by being lectured about it.

FLATOW: That's all in the budget or is that in the stimulus package that you said?

Dr. HOLDREN: A lot of that is in the stimulus package and more of it is in the budget that's just been rolled out. Again, there is nothing in the science and technology domain that the president is more serious about than science, technology, engineering and math education. I often say, in my interactions with the president, what I notice is that every time science and technology come up, he lights up.

If science and technology teaching come up, the wattage goes up. He is just totally committed and enthusiastic about the importance of getting more of our young people interested in science and technology, and active.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I see that his wife have been visiting schools with the message, being smart is cool.

Dr. HOLDREN: She has. She has. And all of us really are doing this. You know, on Earth Day, I went and talked to a group of middle school science students in Takoma Park, Maryland. It was a fabulous experience. These kids were so enthusiastic, so interested, so determined to make a difference. And I think next Earth Day, I'll go to talk to some third graders.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, that's not - and then, you know, we have to take a break. But, you know, that's not the problem. The problem is they start out as great scientists, right? They're all interested in these things. And then, something - somewhere along the line somebody loses interest in them because they would certainly keep going along, I think.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I have to tell you. Nobody had lost interest in these seventh graders I was talking to. And their teacher had just won the prize for the Montgomery County teacher of the year so…

FLATOW: That speaks louder than words. And we're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk lots more with John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, Twittering @scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Talking with Dr. John Holdren, who is - president's science adviser. You don't mind being called that, do you?

Dr. HOLDREN: Not at all. I love it.

FLATOW: That tag has been around for quite some time. We've just had just about every science adviser that has been since we've been on the air almost 20 years now. And they've all been very gracious in coming on the air. We thank you for taking your time to be with us today also.

Let's talk a little bit about - back to energy a little bit and in global climate change. I know you've been in the press a lot, in the media a lot, talking about geo-engineering as something that is - you were quoted as, "something that was on the table." You're not the first one to talk about geo-engineering. There's been a lot of science agencies that have been talking about that for quite a while.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I didn't really talk about it in the way that that was reported. I was taken out of context, and I did not say it was under consideration by this administration. What I was asked about, whether I thought geo-engineering needs to be thought about in the context of the climate question, and I said, from the scientific standpoint, of course it has to be looked at. We have to understand if there's any potential there, we have to understand what its costs and its downsides are.

But there are vast, different set of possibilities for doing that. And then I said in the interview - although this part didn't get reported in most of the stories - that the approaches to geo-engineering that have been looked at so far mostly looked very expensive, of limited effectiveness and burdened by big side effects.

That doesn't mean we should keep looking at them, but they're certainly not under consideration for use in this administration. This president is committed to an approach to global climate change which includes putting a cap on carbon pollution. It includes having a renewable electricity standard and a number of other measures.

And we think those are going to do the job. If they don't do the job and people become interested in geo-engineering, it will be important to have some scientific analyses that show whether there's any potential there that is worth pursuing.

There are a couple of rather simple approaches that actually fall under the heading of geo-engineering that could be valuable. One is turning black roofs into white roofs. If you just put white roofs on top of all your buildings instead of having a dark-colored roof, you reflect more of the incident sunlight back into space and you warm the area less than you otherwise would. Strictly speaking, that's geo-engineering, too, probably a lot more reasonable than some of the more far-out schemes that have been discussed.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Is the president ready to - and you as his science adviser - ready to stand solidly behind evolution?

Dr. HOLDREN: Oh, absolutely. There really is not any scientific doubt about evolution. It is the whole basis of modern biology. It is the basis of much of what we do in our pharmaceutical industry. It's the basis of much of what we do in agriculture. The world, as we know it, shaped by modern biology wouldn't work if evolution were not a reality.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to William(ph) in Berkeley. Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi. I have a quick two-part question. Why can't the government just simply regulate that all new vehicles, trucks, cars, everything has to have 20 percent better gas mileage than they currently have? And all - part two would be why can't the government offer a standard program to buy back much older cars that have a lot more pollution and just get them off the road? Thank you.

Dr. HOLDREN: The second part is easier. That's the concept that now has the name cash-for-clunkers. And I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Where were they 10 years ago?

Dr. HOLDREN: I think we are going to see a cash-for-clunkers measure in all likelihood in the next round of energy legislation. The first part of the question, why don't we just regulate that the fuel economy of everything has to be 20 percent higher, well, we are now in the business - finally, after a very long period of stagnation in fuel economy standards - we are now in the business of ramping up fuel economy standards again, and that is undoubtedly going to continue. That is a high leverage approach to both reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing harmful emissions.

FLATOW: Yeah, we've talked a lot about cars here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. We've talked about small companies. And even - there's a high school, I think, it was a high school in West Philadelphia that we had on. That was - it was a school that had this club, basically, and they found a way using off-the-shelf parts, not the parts that you can only buy in the car repair shop but still valid off-the-shelf parts, that they were able to take - I think it was a Ford Focus - and put together the electric motors and whatever kind of engines and batteries they had, and they were getting 100 miles per gallon off off-the-shelf parts. And I said, well, why isn't Detroit doing this? And why don't - aren't you getting stimulus money to do that? They said, would you ask somebody in the administration for us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, I said if you can do it so quickly, why are we paying, you know, the big car companies - who say will give us all these billions - the money?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, first of all, I'd love to see the design. It sounds fabulous. And I have nothing but praise for kids who figure out how to ingeniously put things together that work better than what you can buy at your local car dealer.

The other side of the coin, though, is that cars actually have to meet a lot of requirements. They have to be reliable over a long period of time. People don't want to have to have them serviced too much. They have to be comfortable. They have to be spacious. They have to be safe. And you always have to look at how well we can do, meeting all those criteria, and not just the fuel economy criteria. And that's certainly is the answer, I think, that the automotive industry would give. That's not to say that there isn't still a lot of room for improvement. And I think we're seeing it already. And we're going to see more. We're going to see cars that get higher fuel economy.

We know 100 miles per gallon is possible in principle, but you've got to achieve that in a way that you can afford it and you can maintain it, and it has the other characteristics that people want from their cars.

FLATOW: Oh, we'll have them send it to you. They said they…

Dr. HOLDREN: I'd love to see it.

FLATOW: Thirty thousand dollars, they could build this car. It goes zero to 60 and like four seconds. It's amazing. You can watch it on YouTube, actually too. And I think they were in competition for the X Prize. That's how far long they have been. But the people are out there, they're thinking, and they're coming up with ideas and they feel left out, you know?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I mean number one, people out there thinking, coming up with ideas that's what we want. We want to unleash all the creativity and innovation that's out there and get people focused on these challenges that we face. There are solutions to be had. And it's true, we got to do a better job of finding ways to encourage and reward innovation.

FLATOW: Let's talk about health care a little bit, and science and health. Are we going to see a swine flu vaccine this fall, do you think?

Dr. HOLDREN: I think we are. Certainly the administration, the Center for Diseased Control, NIH and the Department of Homeland Security, which in different ways share the responsibility for our capacity to respond to a flu epidemic, are all focused on this. We have a timetable for developing a vaccine for the H1N1 virus and ramping up its production in time to have it if there should be a fall wave of this flu.

I think we were fortunate that the spring wave we've experienced turned out to be less horrible than had initially been feared. But this is no time for complacency. We have the possibility as we've seen in 1918, of something that's fairly mild, and the spring coming back with a vengeance in a much more potent form in the fall and we want to be ready for that.

FLATOW: What about stem cell research and even embryonic stem cell research? Are we going to see a further loosening of the - there's still a little bit of restriction on what kinds of embryonic stem cells can be used? Are we going to see any loosening of that down the road?

Dr. HOLDREN: I wouldn't have a prediction on that. I think we've had a process in which the president issued an executive order on that. He asked the NIH to develop guidelines. Those guidelines are now out there in draft form, available for public comment. My suspicion is that they'll stand up pretty well and that will end up with a final set of guidelines that look pretty much like the draft guidelines that's going to enable a lot more federally-funded stem cell research than we've had up until now. And I think we'll start to learn more about the rate at which important, new discoveries can come out of that.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phone. Holden(ph) in Chicago. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Holden.

Unidentified Man: Holden, come first.

HOLDEN (Caller): Can we make the technology in "Star Trek" real?

Dr. HOLDREN: That's a great question. Can we make the technology in "Star Trek" real? Well, there are lot of fabulous technologies in "Star Trek." One of them is the fusion drive of the Starship Enterprise - my own technical background, by the way, was in fusion science. I'd love to see that work. And I think we will have more investment in fusion over the years. And maybe we will ultimately have a fusion drive for starships

FLATOW: That's the one technology that's always - that's the one technology that's always 30 years away.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, you could give any pessimistic view. When I as working on it, it was only 15 years away. And that was in 1970.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HOLDREN: But there are some other technologies that are interesting. One of course, is the cloaking technologies that the starships used in "Star Trek." And there actually have been some advances in that domain. Something that's, I think, much harder is the Beam Me Up Scotty sort of thing, the transporters that basically disassemble people and then reassemble them where they need to be. I'm not sure if the prospects of that were so good.

FLATOW: Holden, do you like science?

HOLDEN: Yeah. I do. I'm into "Star Trek" these days. I was thinking the - I think maybe what could be real is like an invisible force field.

FLATOW: Ah. Invisible force field, John that doesn't sounds so impossible, does it?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that's not so impossible. In fact a lot of the forces that we understand quite well in the world and in the universe today are invisible. Electromagnetic forces are invisible, but they're very real. And I think it's very hard to predict in detail what might be possible from science and technology down the road. But I do understand that a new "Star Trek" movie is opening tonight. And so, I hope Holden in Chicago will be able to see it before long and can give us some advice on which of those technologies are most worth pursuing.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Holden. Good luck to you. Take care.

HOLDEN: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye.


FLATOW: Talking with Dr. John Holdren this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

We have science listeners of all ages, and we love them on this show.

Dr. HOLDREN: Yeah. That was great.

FLATOW: And, you know, people - the one constant about science and science news and science information - when I talked to people who write curricula for kids - half the people who go to those sites are adults. People would love to talk and know as much about science as you can give them. They seek it out, you know?

Dr. HOLDREN: That's right. And they love examples that illustrate exotic possibilities. And often, the stuff that's written for kids does exactly that.

Dr. HOLDREN: Yeah. So you're feeling at home yet?

Dr. HOLDREN: Oh, absolutely. I'm not feeling just at home, I'm exhilarated. I think the challenges are enormous but the opportunities are even bigger. And this president is so focused and so determined on harnessing science and technology to help us meet those challenges that I just couldn't imagine a better job than working with him I'm on it.

FLATOW: Well, we'd love to see him at a science fair some time.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, we got him to talk to the National Academy of Sciences. I'm sure we can get him to go to a science fair.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can lower that age 50 years - to the folks he'd be meeting.

Thank you very much, Dr. Holdren, for taking time to be with us.

Dr. HOLDREN: My pleasure to be here. Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: John Holdren is the science and technology adviser at the White House , the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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