John Holdren and Barack Obama

White House science adviser John Holdren listens as President Barack Obama speaks to astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2010.

NASA/Bill Ingalls (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Analysis: Does Obama’s claim to have rescued science hold up?

This week, John Holdren became the longest-serving presidential science adviser in U.S. history. He marked the occasion by issuing a list of 100 things that President Barack Obama has done to fulfill his inaugural pledge to “restore science in its rightful place.”

Such exercises in legacy building are common for veterans of departing administrations, and Holdren joined this one in its earliest days. But Holdren’s list is also a telling reminder of the limits of power for any occupant of the White House.

That conclusion is based on the 10 items that Holdren’s office chose to highlight in a White House blog, arguably what he sees as the administration’s greatest scientific accomplishments since taking office in January 2009. However, several of those policies have been disrupted by political, economic, and societal forces beyond the president’s control.

For starters, only three of the 10 achievements fall mainly within the purview of the executive branch—attracting top scientific talent, sharing data, and promoting renewable energy while curbing fossil fuel emissions. The first claim—that the White House has attracted the best and the brightest technical personnel to government—is somewhat undermined by the fact that three of the four assistant directorships within Holdren’s own Office of Science and Technology Policy have been vacant for months and are unlikely to be filled before Obama leaves office. And although the White House has certainly been an advocate for clean energy—the third item on the list—the Republican majority in Congress has been able to blunt the Obama administration’s attempts to do even more to combat climate change. A bigger step toward restoring the luster of science is probably the second item on Holdren’s list, that is, what the administration has done to increase transparency and public access to scientific data.

Three items on Holdren’s top 10 are intimately bound up with the budget process and, thus, fall under the control of Congress. One is arguably the administration’s biggest gift to U.S. science: The $18 billion research bonanza that was part of the administration’s $800 billion stimulus package to dig out from the 2008 Great Recession. That budgetary high point was reached just 6 weeks after the administration took office, however. Since then, the payoff from the president’s annual budget requests to boost science spending has been mixed; in some years, Congress has even exceeded those requests. Holdren’s second item, increasing public access to broadband internet services, is also largely tied to the stimulus package. And the third accomplishment, the administration’s proposed network of advanced manufacturing institutes, has become an annual tug of war with Congress, although this week the White house announced funding for the ninth such manufacturing hub.

The four remaining items on the list are more about the administration serving as a cheerleader for efforts by the private sector rather than being a direct instigator of change. Holdren assigns the president credit for the country’s growing tech-savvy workforce, but many education analysts attribute the soaring number of college students majoring in engineering to factors unrelated to the administration’s policies. Likewise, a presidential target of training an additional 10,000 secondary school math and science teachers every year has turned out to be a low bar that has proven relatively easy to clear.

The push for more entrepreneurship, another listed accomplishment, flies in the face of a decadelong decline in the number of startup companies that has also meant a slump in new, well-paid high-tech jobs. And whereas Holdren is correct in saying that the commercial space sector is flourishing, Republicans would dispute his assertion that the administration deserves credit for its rosy prospects. A more credible claim is the administration’s role in fostering innovation in health care through its promotion of such high-profile projects as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative and precision medicine.

Holdren certainly knows that science advances incrementally and in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to 4-year presidential cycles. He also knows that claiming credit for events involving myriad factors playing out on a global scale is a risky enterprise. But legacies must be built on something, so such lists have become a staple of political life. There’s also this: How many of us would wager that Obama’s successor will be able to compile anywhere near as impressive a list of scientific accomplishments?