Cast of Characters
Obama Science Nominees Warmly Welcomed on Hill
By Juliet Eilperin
While President Obama reopens the search for a Commerce secretary in the wake Sen. Judd Gregg's (R-N.H.) decision to withdraw his name from consideration, two of his top scientific nominees received a largely warm welcome from members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today, who said they expected the two of them to maintain the government's scientific integrity while also addressing real-world concerns about climate change, space exploration and fishery management.
Both Harvard University physicist John Holdren -- who is slated to head the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy -- and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, who is in line to serve as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, told the panel they would emphasize the importance of independent research as they helped policymakers grapple with the nation's pressing scientific problems.
After the panel's chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WVa.) asked them how they protect the integrity of science -- "How do you protect that when you're being buffeted by a variety of other interests within the government?" -- Lubchenco replied that such inquiry was important, but not the only factor in federal policy decisions.
"I believe very strongly that the role of science is to inform our understanding and inform our decisions," she said. "The science doesn't tell us what to do. The choices you make are often social decisions that should be informed by science."
Despite the current economic crunch, both Holdren and Lubchenco indicated they would seek to expand their operations in order to meet the country's scientific needs. Holdren said he planned to resurrect the White House National Space Council -- a comment that pleased committee member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- and said he would explore how the U.S. could continue to have a presence in space beyond its currently-planned missions.
"There's no question the gap in our ability to put people in space is a matter of great concern," Holdren said. "We're committed to figuring that problem out, because it's a major priority."
Lubchenco, for her part, said she would work to create a National Climate Service that would both analyze global warming data and make such information available to the public as well as to elected decision makers.
While the hearing began on a collegial note -- Rockefeller assured committee members, "Both Senator Hutchison and I have read the FBI reports on these two distinguished folks, and that was the easiest reading I've ever been through," -- Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) lit into Holdren once got his chance to ask questions.
Referring to comments the scientist had made decades ago, Vitter questioned why Holdren had co-authored a paper in 1971 with Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich in Global Ecology suggesting "some form of ecocatastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century."
"Do you think that was a responsible prediction?" Vitter queried.
Holdren tried to answer with a bit of humor, responding, "That was a statement that, even at the age of twenty-six, I had the good sense to hedge by saying 'almost certain.'"
While some members of the audience laughed, Vitter -- who has yet to decide how he will vote on Holdren and Lubchenco's nominations -- was not amused.
Vitter also questioned why Holdren predicted in 1986 that global warming "would cause the deaths of one billion people by 2020."
"I don't think it's likely," replied the man Obama has chosen to serve as his top scientific adviser. "It could happen."
Other senators were kinder to the two nominees. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga,) said he had already decided to go scuba diving with Lubchenco, while Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) offered to host the pair if they journeyed to the Florida Keys for their underwater jaunt.
Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tried to get in on the act, though she acknowledged she had a hard sell. "I could only invite you to go scuba diving in Lake Superior," she said, noting it lacked the same allure as the Keys, "being rather chilly."
Posted at 7:55 PM ET on Feb 12, 2009
Cast of Characters
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