John Holdren tells Nature about the Highs and Lows of nearly eight years in the White House, Holdren is the longest-serving presidential Science Adviser in US history.
Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN
Obama’s top scientist talks shrinking budgets, Donald Trump, and his biggest regret
John Holdren tells Nature about the highs and lows of nearly eight years in the White House.
Do you worry about future science funding?
The president has consistently recommended more money for science and technology than Congress has been willing to pass.
The success ratio of proposals to the NIH is something like 17% — that is, we are funding one-sixth of the proposals that the NIH gets. And those proposals are already self-selected. Investigators don’t bother writing a proposal to the NIH unless they think they have got a really good idea, a capable team and a plausible strategy. If you ask Francis Collins, the NIH director, what fraction of the proposals they get that are worthy of funding, he’ll tell you 50%.
That means we are funding about a third of the potentially productive, influential, path-breaking research that is proposed to the NIH. But the NIH has a budget of over US$30 billion per year. It’s not very easy in these budget times to increase a $30-billion budget by a large factor, like 50% — never mind 100% or more, as director Collins would say is warranted in terms of the quality of the research. The same is true at the National Science Foundation — far more worthy proposals than they are able to fund. This is a consistent problem. I would like to see more public support for raising public spending on research and development.
With Asilomar, every scientist working on recombinant DNA came together. But now there are researchers in China who are editing the human germ line using CRISPR, because it’s legal there — and there are plenty of others elsewhere. It’s arguably legal here.
And we’ve got high-school kids who can use CRISPR technology, so I’m not saying this is all tied up neatly with a bow. This is a very challenging question. When the technology is so widely available and so relatively easy to use, this is a very different matter than, for example, controlling nuclear-weapons technology. That has been a big challenge as well, as we know, but this is hard work.
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