John Holdren on science in the Obama era

Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama's national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests was a reprint of the 1946 bestseller, One World or None, a collection of essays penned by scientists warning of the coming nuclear age.

Holdren talked a bit about the role of science and technology in the Obama administration. He noted the happy uptick in intellectual capital over the Bush years, pointing to the multiple Nobel laureates at the helm of federal agencies, and the administration's increasing willingness to examine the role of technology in achieving other priorities, such as healthcare delivery and development assistance. But even so, darn it's hard making progress, he said, in this political and economic environment. Not many big concrete, accomplishments to brag about. No projections on future climate or carbon policy. 

Yet, one passing remark gave me some hope: When Holdren took the job, he had expected much of his role to entail educating the president. However, Holdren found, as he put it, "When I go in to meet with the president, I almost never have to explain to him how the underlying technology works. We go immediately to the question of: 'What should we do?'"

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Iraq: the raveling

Ever since violence in Iraq receded from its peak in 2007, a cottage industry of sorts has sprung up ominously predicting a return to the bad old days. In the past year, there has been plenty of ammunition for these folks: Iraq's government formation process set world records for delay, articles warned of a resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq, and U.S. troops continued to engage in combat operations across the country, the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom notwithstanding.

These are all important data points -- but it's also a selective reading of events. The fact is, there's also some positive news from Iraq these days: According the Iraqi government sources, the country experienced its lowest toll of violence in September since January. The Iraqi ministries reported that 273 Iraqis were killed in September, a dramatic decline from high levels of violence in July and August. The Iraqi government's figures were supported by Iraqi Body Count, which reported 243 casualties in September, and, which calculated that 174 Iraqis had been killed.

There's even been progress in forming a government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears all but assured to win a second term in office, assuming he can mollify the remaining Kurdish demands to join his coalition. No, the pan-Shia coalition that Maliki will rely on to sweep back into office isn't the way that diplomats would have preferred to see the next Iraqi prime minister elected. But with the United States rapidly losing its military leverage in Iraq, U.S. officials -- and Iraqis themselves -- are better off with a new government in place than a vacuum at the top.

So, one cheer for Iraq's growing stability. It has now been three years since the worst of Iraq's civil war ended, and, while there are plenty of challenges ahead, the country has shown no signs of falling back into chaos. That's good news, even if it doesn't make for good headlines.