WASHINGTON — Some of President Obama’s top science staffers called it “the Columbo question.”
The president had a habit, just like television’s favorite detective, of making one last inquiry of his aides when being briefed on science issues. A question that “goes right to the heart of the matter,” said his chief science adviser, Dr. John Holdren, in an interview with STAT.
Of course, Holdren would say that. But the evidence of Obama’s science nerdom is everywhere. It has been a defining characteristic of his presidency — and one that Holdren said has helped him not only shape policies on climate change and manufacturing, but also to respond to infectious disease outbreaks like Ebola, Zika, and H1N1.
“It would be astonishing if you could have been in the room, to see the president with the head of the CDC, and the head of the NIH, and the head of HHS … and the president asking exactly the right questions and challenging exactly the points he should have challenged,” Holdren said, recalling the Ebola and Zika briefings he attended.
“I’m biased in this matter,” he continued, “but I think it’s a great advantage to have a president who knows how to think about complicated issues in science and technology.”
Which naturally leads to the question: What about President-elect Donald Trump?
Holdren declined to comment much on what to expect from the president-elect on matters of science. But the uncertainty about Trump’s beliefs — as someone who has flirted with anti-vaccination rhetoric, who said that he had heard “terrible” things about the National Institutes of Health — has been the source of anxiety for many other scientists since his election.
People in those circles worry that the new administration could mean a marked shift from an Obama White House that was widely seen as science-friendly.
Obama, though, “had no discernible science background on his resume,” Holdren noted. What the president did have, according to his top science adviser, were “voracious” reading habits and “a very good BS filter” when it came to science.
And early doubts aren’t always warranted. Holdren pointed out that George W. Bush, whose intelligence and interest in science had been questioned at times, appointed a highly respected science adviser in physicist John Marburger III.
If officials new to office wanted a well-rounded introduction to science, Holdren ticked off a few books (at STAT’s urging) they could read: “Science and Engineering Indicators,” put out by the National Science Foundation; “Intelligent Life in the Universe” by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii; and “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
So he sounded hopeful that the new administration would see the value in the work the Obama administration has done over the last four years. For medical science, that includes the precision medicine and cancer moonshot initiatives, and a national plan for antibiotic resistance.
“My hope is that it survives,” Holdren said.
But even so, a cultural shift seems likely at the White House. Holdren — though, again, hardly an objective source — likes to call Obama “the most science-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson.”
When Obama and Holdren took office, there had been a longstanding rule that science staffers should not give the president a memo longer than two pages; they simply had too much else to do.
“That rule went out the window in the first week,” Holdren said.
Memos as long as 10 pages became the norm. Obama would start many meetings with Holdren and others by saying: “Let me see if I’ve got this right.”
The president would then “proceed without any notes in front of him to synthesize and summarize the memo in complete sentences and paragraphs,” Holdren said, “and his synthesis was better than the memo was.”
Holdren also credited Obama for his commitment to basic research, with the understanding that it could be years before its practical applications became clear. He remembered a speech that Obama gave to the National Academy of Sciences in which the president stressed its importance and how it reflected humanity’s “desire to know, to understand.”
“The president respects that, embraces it, and has been a very strong supporter therefore of basic research,” he said. “Not everybody in politics has had that understanding.”
Pick an issue on any president’s agenda, Holdren said, and scientific literacy will be important. Biomedicine and public health. Environmental quality. Homeland security.
“If you think about the domains of responsibility of the president, science, technology and innovation matter,” Holdren said, “and they matter significantly in every one of those domains.”