WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is presenting the 2022 Public Welfare Medal to John P. Holdren for his many years of work on behalf of science, particularly in his role as science advisor to former President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, making Holdren the longest serving presidential science advisor since World War II.  The medal is the Academy’s most prestigious award, established in 1914 and presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good.

Holdren’s 50-year career in science and technology has included seminal research and policy engagement on fusion energy, causes and consequences of global environmental change, energy-technology innovation to meet the climate challenge, and international security and arms control.  He currently serves as the Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and co-director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Throughout his distinguished career, John Holdren has provided critical leadership on some of the most important issues of our time,” said Susan Wessler, NAS home secretary and chair of the selection committee for the award.  “He has made it his mission to employ science to improve society and to ensure that public policy is informed by research and evidence — greatly benefiting our nation and the world.”

“As one of our most outstanding and effective public servants, John Holdren has more than fulfilled the call to ‘restore science to its rightful place,’ as he was charged to do by President Obama,” said NAS President Marcia McNutt.  “He has helped shape sound national policy on everything from climate change to international nuclear arms control, and his efforts to ensure the strength of our scientific enterprise will reverberate for generations to come.  We are pleased to present him with our highest honor.”

During his time as presidential science advisor — and concurrently as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) — Holdren was responsible for advising the president on all science and technology issues on the national agenda, including the role of science and technology in the economy, public health, energy and climate change, the oceans and the Arctic, the nation’s space program, and national and homeland security.

In this capacity, he helped coordinate U.S. responses to the H1N1 flu and Ebola outbreaks, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Holdren was one of the architects of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and played key roles in launching a number of other federal science and technology innovations, including the Quadrennial Energy Review and initiatives on precision medicine, antibiotic resistance, advanced manufacturing, open data, forensic science, strategic computing, and STEM education.

As a powerful champion for science funding, Holdren successfully advocated for federal budgets that prioritized basic and early-stage applied research and pushed for increased free access to the findings of federally funded research.  In addition, he worked to bolster science’s role within the federal government. For example, following up on a 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity, Holdren issued guidance — subsequently adopted by some two dozen federal agencies and departments — that outlined standards for shielding science from political interference, prioritized the professional development of scientists and engineers, and enhanced the ability of federal advisory committees to provide independent scientific advice.

His many other career highlights include serving as chair of the executive committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs — an international network of scientists and other leaders that “seeks a world free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” In 1995, the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for which Holdren delivered the acceptance lecture. And from 1994 until 2001, Holdren was a member of PCAST under President Bill Clinton, leading several studies on energy-technology innovation and nuclear arms control; he served on the Board of Trustees of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation from 1991 to 2005; and he chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on International Security and Arms Control from 1994 to 2005.

Holdren joined the Harvard University faculty in 1996 as the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School and professor of environmental science and policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and from 2017 to 2021 he was also affiliated professor in Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; he is now emeritus in these roles. Prior to joining Harvard, he spent two years at Caltech and 23 years at the University of California, Berkeley, where from 1973 to 1996 he co-founded and co-led the campuswide interdisciplinary graduate program in energy and resources.

He has held visiting appointments at the East-West Center, the Max Planck Institute, MIT, the University of Rome, and Tsinghua University, and he is currently president emeritus and senior advisor to the president at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, a preeminent, independent environmental-research organization based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Holdren earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in aerospace engineering from MIT and his Ph.D. in plasma physics from Stanford University.  He is one of the first recipients of the MacArthur Fellowships (1981), and has been awarded the Volvo Environment Prize (1993), the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2000), the Heinz Prize for Public Policy (2001), the Gwangha Medal of the Republic of Korea (2017), the Moynihan Prize of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2018), the Order of the Rising Sun from the government of Japan (2019), the Arthur Bueche Award of the National Academy of Engineering (2021), the International Scientific and Technological Cooperation Award from the State Council of China (2021), and seven honorary doctorates. Holdren is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Council on Foreign Relations.  He is also a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He and his wife of 56 years, biologist Dr. Cheryl Holdren, have two children and five grandchildren ages 17 to 30.  They live on Cape Cod.

The Public Welfare Medal will be presented to Holdren on May 1 during the Academy’s 159th annual meeting.  More information, including a list of past recipients, is available at www.nasonline.org/programs/awards/public-welfare-medal.html.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Director, Executive Communications
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