Questions for John Holdren, Obama’s Science Advisor

Background.  Jeff Jacoby in his column of 1/18/09 (“Questions for Obama’s Science Guy”) asks questions of Dr. John Holdren, Obama’s choice for the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a.k.a., the President’s Science Advisor). Most of Jacoby’s questions are really literary devices, used to criticize Holdren.  Here I mix my interests in politics and Operations Research to ask Holder a  different set of questions.


Dear Dr. Holdren,

I wish you and Obama success, and I look forward to greatly improved science policy and greatly improved communication of scientific issues.   I also have some questions for you at this time.

  1. Most politicians (and most most everyone else) are notoriously uncomfortable with making decisions if they are uncertain.  Yet climate change is an issue filled with uncertainties.   Can the U.S. have the political will to pass national policies that will (in expectation) reduce global warming, but where the actual reduction is highly uncertain?
  2. How much do you know about Operations Research?  Are you aware that it is a field that is especially well suited for analyzing complex systems, and for making complex resource decisions under uncertainty?
  3.  The NIH budget is devoted almost entirely to studying scientific issues in medical research.  Accordingly, NIH does a poor job of addressing the critically important issue of how to make healthcare delivery more efficient and more effective.   Will you commit a certain percentage of the NIH budget (perhaps around 10%) to research on how to improve healthcare delivery?  (Did I mention that Operations Research has a lot to offer on this issue?) 
  4. Obama is a very strong believer in moving to digital storage of information so that access to information is quicker, more widely available, and more reliable.  Once the information is stored, there is potential for substantial additional value by the development of decision support systems that guides users in making more informed and intelligent decisions.  Will your administration advocate and support the development of decision support systems? (Did I mention that Operations Researchers have great expertise in the development of these systems?)
  5. Many of the most serious science and technology issues facing our country cross many academic discipline boundaries.  Operations Research looks at issues from a systems viewpoint, and its practitioners can often add large value when working on interdisciplinary teams.  Will you consider Operations Research (and its professional society INFORMS) when you appoint panels to study important scientific and technical policy issues?

I thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, James Orlin  
Professor of Operations Research.


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