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Dr. John P. Holdren
2021 Arthur M. Bueche Award Winner
Thank you, Dr. Brierly, for your generous introduction.
While I never met Dr. Bueche--and wish I had--I did have the great privilege of meeting, at one time or another, nearly all of the previous recipients of the NAE award that bears his name.
Indeed, I had the pleasure of working closely with—and learning from—a number of those awardees, including Jerry Wiesner, Jack Gibbons, Lew Branscomb, Bob Frosch, Chuck Vest, and Venkatesh Narayanamurti.
My feeling of connectedness with the previous Bueche awardees adds to the pride I feel upon joining this extremely distinguished company.
I had aspired, from the time I was in high school, to a career studying, teaching, and advising around the great, intertwined, national and global challenges that sit at the intersection of science and engineering with societal well-being—particularly poverty and development, energy and environment, and national and international security. I decided to start with serious studies in engineering and physics, aiming to add, on top of that, at least passing familiarity with the ideas and tools of biologists (I married one), geologists, economists, and political scientists, among others.
I had the early benefit of a terrific set of mentors at MIT, Lockheed, Stanford, Livermore, Caltech, and Berkeley, who were instrumental not only in broadening my education but also in connecting me to opportunities to engage with a wide array of national and global leaders in the interdisciplinary fields of interest I’ve mentioned--through, for example, committees of the National Academies, meetings of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and engagement with such science-technology-and-society organizations as the AAAS and the Federation of American Scientists.
Each new opportunity led to other opportunities and new mentors, with the surprising result that I was actually able to get away with my wildly ambitious aspiration to have a career working on some of the world’s most interesting problems in collaboration with some of the world’s most interesting people.
Since leaving my position as President Obama’s Assistant for Science and Technology at the end of his second term, I have been working on a book about what I’ve learned in that now five-decade long career. In my brief remarks here, I will mention just four key points that will be in the book.
First, to understand and then to address successfully challenges such as climate change, the needed clean-energy transition, COVID-19 and the epidemics still to come, and managing the risks of nuclear weapons requires both interdisciplinary integrators and people with deep specialized expertise in a number of natural science, social science, and engineering disciplines. We need to manage our nation’s educational system and our reward system to ensure that we encourage, train, and productively engage plenty of both, and while we’re at it, teach them to work together.
Second, we need to lift our game in STEM education nationally, not simply to train the disciplinary and interdisciplinary science and technology experts we need to tackle so many of the biggest societal challenges; but also to produce the tech-savvy workers that this century’s jobs require, and the science-and-technology-savvy citizenry that a democracy needs in order to function in an era when more and more of the decisions facing elected leaders have significant science and technology content.
Third, the needed new thrust in STEM education must include an expanded effort to inspire and nurture the participation of groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields, including most notably women, people of color, Hispanics, and Native Americans. (That underrepresentation is especially acute, I hardly need to mention here, in engineering.) As President Obama was fond of saying in this connection, you can’t win the game with half the players on the bench.
Fourth, as so much recent experience has demonstrated, the needed degree of success in science and engineering applied to national and global needs requires partnerships—not only, as I’ve already stressed, partnerships across disciplines, but also partnerships across government, academia, business, and NGOs, and, where appropriate, partnerships among nations. Notwithstanding all the factors that understandably divide countries across the world—and, today, particularly divide the United States and China and the United States and Russia—there are science-and-engineering-heavy issues where bilateral and multilateral collaboration is so much in our national interest, as well as in the national interest of our partners, that we should strive to maintain such collaboration despite nearly all other differences. In my view the issues where international collaboration is essential include climate change, pandemic disease, threats to the ocean and the Arctic, nuclear-reactor safety, some aspects of space exploration, and minimizing the risks from nuclear weapons and nuclear-explosive materials.
In closing, let me thank the National Academy of Engineering and the Bueche family for the honor of this award, and thank all of you here for your attention.