White House science & budget offices must lead in revitalizing federal climate research


Stronger leadership from the White House and Congress is urgently needed to revitalize and reform the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), to ensure that we have the scientific underpinnings for dealing effectively with the growing climate change threat.  This 20-year-old, $1.8 billion program is now suffering from leadership neglect, parochialism within the participating agencies, and a slow recovery from the insults and injuries of a two-term, Bush-Cheney administration that talked up the need for science but then walked all over the people who were making honorable contributions to our understanding of Earth’s highly complex climate system and how human activity is interfering with natural processes.  (For example, by censoring communications and cutting budgets at a time they needed to be growing.) We’re now left with a dysfunctional family of research programs and initiatives, all competing with one another for funding and recognition.  While the White House is necessarily focused on cap-and-trade, green jobs, and renewable energy, we wonder, who is steering the multiagency climate science ship?  It obviously needs a rudder, sails, and a crew and captain; it should not be left to drift. Part of the formula that worked in the past was an alliance between OSTP and OMB, and a 1990 law specifying product and process.  Is this the right formula to get us back on course?  We argue, cautiously, that it is—with some adjustments. 

post by Anne Polansky

When dealing with the complexities of Earth’s natural systems, it’s not wise to fly blind.  As a society, we have learned the importance of scientific research in helping us to understand how our actions both affect and are affected by a highly intricate set of natural processes that sustain life.  The role of the natural sciences in public policymaking has a checkered past.  To his credit, President Obama has stressed the importance of science-based public policies, especially in the arenas of climate change and sustainable energy policy.

The US government’s role in supporting research to advance knowledge of Earth’s climate system has a long history.  The National Climate Program Act of 1978 was an acknowledgment that the “greenhouse effect” and “global warming” required an interdisciplinary approach and could not be the sole responsibility of one agency or department in the federal government.  NOAA was given the lead and the responsibility for engaging other agencies, but this formula didn’t work well at all, as NASA, NSF, EPA and other agencies were not willing to cede budgetary and programmatic decisions to another agency.  Pressure from Congress to better organize the agencies to look at climate change resulted in the involvement by the Domestic Policy Council, and later the creation of a Committee on Earth Sciences in the Reagan White House.  In the late 1980s a group of dedicated public servants cobbled together a voluntary coalition of federal researchers and data gatherers and modelers, and so on, and started thinking in earnest about how they might collaborate to get a more holistic view of climate change. 

The US Global Change Research Program was born of this effort; the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (GCRA) codified what was already mostly in place and functioning to improve scientific understanding of Earth’s climate system, its response to escalating greenhouse gas emissions, and the implications for human populations and the natural environment.  Within a decade its budget grew to more than $2 billion and engaged climate researchers in about a dozen agencies and departments.  Its many achievements during the 1990s resulted from the right combination of leadership from the White House— including Robert Watson, Jerry Melillo, and Rosina Bierbaum in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and, in the early stages, Jack Fellows in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—and a handful of highly dedicated public servants managing its day-to-day operations, including long-time program chair Robert Corell of the National Science Foundation; program coordination office director Michael MacCracken; Michael Hall at NOAA; Shelby Tilford at NASA; Ari Patrinos at the Dept. of Energy, and others.  Many of these individuals are still active in the climate community, making valuable contributions to climate change science and policy.

The USGCRP essentially represented a massive public policy experiment to test whether the federal government can successfully build and sustain a coherent, integrated program out of disparate research activities in a dozen agencies and departments.  This experiment is still ongoing, but has revealed that strong leadership at the top levels of government is essential for organizing agency research priorities around a central strategic plan and helping to ensure there are as few redundancies of effort, and, conversely, as few gaps in the research, as possible. 

Much of the success of the USGCRP can be attributed to leadership through a management structure in the White House OSTP, codified by the GCRA, which worked in collaboration with budget coordinators in OMB. 

In the late 1980s, under the leadership of Jack Fellows at OMB and an interagency principals-level committee established under OSTP oversight, a “budget crosscut” became the tool for integrating climate science efforts across the agencies.  The crosscut was a two-dimensional table that listed climate change research activities both by agency, and by discipline (or program).  Agencies were motivated to participate in the crosscut because it meant their budget requests would make it into the President’s budget request to Congress.  This working relationship between OSTP and OMB became the sine qua non of the USGCRP. 

An initial necessary focus on observations, modeling, and process research on the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere and ocean, as CO2 and other greenhouse gas concentrations continued to rise, remained the predominant focus during the 1990s, along with some support for research on terrestrial ecosystem dynamics and global changes in land cover.  In the late 1990s an ambitious comprehensive assessment of climate impacts by region and sector - the US National Assessment—was a major achievement and an example of what is possible when a host of players—agencies, departments, universities, stakeholders—work together in an orchestrated fashion. 

By 2000, it was time for the program to expand its focus to conside how best to assist the American people in preparing for the serious implications of a climate future markedly different from the climate past, and to focus on identifying effective strategies for adaptation.  It was also time to put our best scientific and engineering minds to the task of reducing (mitigating) the threat by decreasing the load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

This was not to be, however.  Instead, under Bush-Cheney, the USGCRP was renamed the Climate Change Science Program, and though it produced a set of good, topical scientific synthesis and assessment reports to Congress and the President over the course of two presidential terms, the CCSP became increasingly invisible to policymakers (largely a result of paltry communications and outreach, and lack of a strong, independent leadership voice), and failed to integrate a loosely affiliated set of research activities into a coherent new straegic focus on climate change impacts and response strategies.  Budget cuts, especially in Bush’s second term, were weakly disguised by moving program budgets in and out of the CCSP basket.  The satellite-based Earth observing programs were seriously compromised by bringing in the Department of Defense to work with NASA and NOAA and failing to provide adequate funding.  The Program is now struggling to keep up with accelerating impacts such as Arctic ice melt and a dangerously prolonged western drought, and is failing to meet society’s urgent needs for decision support. 

During the last few years of the Bush-Cheney Administration, the leadership structure for the CCSP/USGCRP devolved into an arrangement in which a NOAA deputy assistant secretary served as the part-time Acting Director of the Climate Change Science Program.  The CCSP coordination office has no real authority (e.g., over research program planning and funding priorities) vis-a-vis the agencies it is supposed to be coordinating .  The program and its coordination office have been prevented from reactivating and updating a nationwide National Assessment process with regional and sectoral analyses and scientist-stakeholder collaborations.  These weaknesses should be corrected. 

The USGCRP’s growth and evolution have been stunted, and now, our ability to foresee emerging impacts at the local and regional level, and to develop adaptation and mitigation response strategies, has been compromised at the federal level and left largely to states and local communities to grapple with on their own.  Communities across the nation are typically ill-equipped to deal with the array of challenges for which climate change acts as both direct threat and a threat multiplier:  prolonged droughts, extreme weather such as hurricanes and storm surges, heat waves, disruption of water resources, forest fires and die-offs, coastal inundation as a result of sea level rise, and so on. 

Now that the climate disruption threat appears to be more serious and developing more rapidly than projected, even by the IPCC, a strong scientific research and impacts assessment capability is crucial for charting a public policy course that allows us to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable” consequences of climate change.

Our recommendations are in line with those made by a group of climate science organizations, led by the Univerisity Corporation for Atmospheric Research:  “Advice to the New Administration and Congress: Actions to Make our Nation Resilient to Severe Weather and Climate Change

The Executive Branch offices and federal agencies must take more leadership in coordinating weather and climate programs, including OMB, OSTP, NOAA, NASA, NSF, USDA, DOE, DOI, DOT, and EPA. The USGCRP (http://www.usgcrp.gov) has existed since the late 1980s and has made substantial progress on understanding Earth processes and coordinating the federal agency efforts in this area. This multi-agency effort worked best in the years when there was a strong partnership between the research agencies and OMB/OSTP that supported an effective, integrated program and budget approval process. We are recommending that the next Administration and the Congress adopt the very best management tools from the USGCRP/CCSP’s history and create CCSP Version 2.0:

1. The leader of this effort should report to the President and at a level equivalent to an economic or national security advisor. The leader must have an effective staff, enough of a budget to influence the agency programs in key priority areas, the ability to get outside advice from the broad weather and climate enterprise, and an open and transparent manner of conducting business.

2. OMB/OSTP and agency leaders should be selected to support this critical interagency process and OMB/OSTP staff should be given the authority, resources, and time to support it. OMB, in particular, should examine how it is structured to ensure that the involved agencies are overseen in an effective, integrated fashion. In the past, differences between key OMB leaders have eroded the effectiveness of this interagency process.

3.OMB/OSTP should implement an annual integrated weather and climate program and budget review and submit an integrated program plan and budget to the Congress as part of the President’s budget.

4.These programs should be considered national priorities and protected from internal agency budget cuts and tradeoffs. This should be implemented via the normal OMB budget development and passback process.

5.The U.S. Global Change Research Program Act of 1990 may need to be updated to reflect a greater focus on adaptation and to ensure that the critical management approaches mentioned above are followed.

In the fall of 2008, the Climate Change Science Program Office (CCSPO) organized and hosted a meeting to gather input from a variety of stakeholders on how best to proceed.  One of their recommendations was:

“[T]he right people in the right places with appropriate authority is considered critical to a successful program.”

We agree. 

We believe that OSTP Director John Holdren would be wise to appoint a full-time senior official at OSTP, with additional staff support, to direct and oversee the USGCRP:  this program deserves full-time attention at the level of the White House, given the challenges we face.  This person should have strong science credentials and a working knowledge of the political process in Washington. 

Likewise, OMB Director Peter Orszag should assign responsibility for USGCRP budget integration and oversight to one or more high-level OMB staff, and direct them to work closely with OSTP leadership and a revitalized USGCRP coordination office. 

The White House and Congress should engage in diligent oversight to make sure research priorities in the USGCRP are strategically integrated, with a stepped up focus on climate change impacts and response strategies.  The National Academy of Sciences recently culminated a two-year review of the USGCRP and made nine overall recommendations that merit serious consideration by the President and the Congress. 

See our post:  National Academy of Sciences releases a must-read report:  Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate

These recommendations should be folded into an overall strategic plan for the USGCRP and become part of program planning and budgeting in the USGCRP participating agencies. 

In addition, Congress should enact the needed reforms to ensure we have a fully functioning science and assessment program.  Several bills were introduced and considered in the last Congress, and we expect new legislative initiatives during the current Congress.  In addition, the congressional appropriations process, which now considers climate and global change research budget requests from the USGCRP participating agencies in at least seven different appropriations subcommittees, with as many separate appropriations bills, should develop a mechanism by which Congress can consider the climate research budget in a less balkanized, more integrated fashion. 

It is time to meet the challenge, seize the opportunity, and use effectively the extensive set of research resources embodied in the USGCRP to achieve the mission of helping policymakers and society with research, assessment, and decision support for “solving” the climate change problem.  But unless OSTP and OMB step up to the plate, and Congress engages in reparative measures, the prognosis for the USGCRP living up to its potential to meet these needs will be dim. 


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