Lessons from Iceland: A Nation Striving to Punch Above Its Weight in a Globalized World

Friday, January 26, 2018 - 4:00pm
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Belfer Arctic Initiative

A public address by
His Excellency
Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson
President of Iceland

John P. Holdren (Moderator)
Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, HKS
Co-Director, Science, Technology and Public Policy Program, HKS
Faculty Co-Lead, HKS Arctic Initiative
Chair, White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee, 2015-2017

His Excellency Guđni Jóhannesson, President of Iceland, addressed the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Iceland’s strategy for influencing and competing with larger nations – to “punch above its weight.” Drawing on his background as a historian, the president emphasized how Iceland stood its ground against England in the Cod Wars.  President Jóhannesson also highlighted the importance of fisheries, oceans, and gender equality in Icelandic society. The Forum was moderated by Dr. John Holdren.

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was born in Reykjavík on 26 June, 1968. He is the son of Margrét Thorlacius and Jóhannes Sæmundsson; Jóhannes died in 1983. Guðni grew up in Garðabær and has two brothers.

President Jóhannesson graduated from secondary school in 1987 in Reykjavík, then studied history and political science at Warwick University in England and finished his B.A. degree in 1991. He studied German at Bonn University in Germany in 1991-1992 and Russian at the University of Iceland in 1993-1994. Guðni graduated with a master’s degree in history from the University of Iceland in 1997. He studied at Oxford University in England and graduated with an M.St. degree in history in 1999. In 2003 he completed his Ph.D. in history from Queen Mary, University of London.

President Jóhannesson is married to Eliza Jean Reid, whom he met while they were both studying at Oxford University. She is from Canada and studied modern history at Oxford University and international relations at Trinity College, University of Toronto. The President and First Lady have been living in Iceland since 2003. Their children are Duncan Tindur (b. 2007), Donald Gunnar (b. 2009), Sæþór Peter (b. 2011) and Edda Margrét (b. 2013). Rut (b. 1994) is President Jóhannesson’s eldest child, from his previous marriage to Elín Haraldsdóttir, business administrator and artist.

Before taking office as president, President Jóhannesson  was Professor of history at the University of Iceland. He has taught at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik University, Bifröst University and the University of London. For a few years he also worked part-time for the Icelandic State Broadcasting Company as a reporter. President Jóhannesson has written numerous books on modern Icelandic history, including works about the Cod Wars, the Icelandic presidency, the late Prime Minister Gunnar Thoroddsen, a book about spying in Iceland, a book about former President Kristján Eldjárn, and a book about the 2008 banking collapse. He has also written dozens of scholarly articles and newspaper articles. He has received a variety of recognitions for his works, and in 2017 he was awarded an honorary degree by Queen Mary University.

John P. Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government; Co-Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy in the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs;  and Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. He is also Senior Advisor to the Director at the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. From January 2009 to January 2017, he was President Obama's Science Advisor and the Senate confirmed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), becoming the longest-serving Science Advisor to the President in the history of the position (dating back to World War II). His responsibilities in that role included advising the President on all S&T issues bearing on the President’s agenda (including economic competitiveness and job creation, biomedicine and public health, energy and climate change, the oceans and the Arctic, the Nation's space program, and national and homeland security); coordinating R&D strategy and budgets across the Executive Branch departments and agencies; overseeing interagency S&T programs, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program; developing initiatives in STEM education; advancing scientific integrity and openness in government; and representing the U.S. government in interactions with the U.S. and global science and engineering communities.

Dr. Holdren earned S.B. and S.M. degrees from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from Stanford in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a foreign member of both the Royal Society of London and the Indian National Academy of Engineering and a former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His other honors include one of the first MacArthur Prizes (1981), the Volvo International Environment Prize (1993), the Tyler Prize for Environment (2000), and the Heinz Prize for Public Policy (2001). In 1995 he gave the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organization of scientists and public figures in which he served in leadership positions from 1982 to 1997.

Prior to joining the Obama administration, Dr. Holdren was a professor in both the Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, as well as CEO of the Woods Hole Research Center. From 1973 to 1996, he was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he co-founded and co-led the interdisciplinary graduate-degree program in energy and resources.

He served from 1991 to 2005 as a member of the Board of Trustees of the MacArthur Foundation and from 1994 to 2005 as Chairman of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the National Academy of Sciences. During the Clinton Administration, he served for both terms on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, leading studies on nuclear materials protection, fusion-energy research, strengthening Federal investments in energy R&D, and international cooperation on energy-technology innovation.

Dr. Holdren has been married since 1966 to Dr. Cheryl E. Holdren, a biologist. They have a son, a daughter, and five grandchildren. John and Cheryl currently live on Cape Cod.