US Global Change Research Program: Budget reporting impedes meaningful oversight


The US Global Change Research Program is in serious need of an overhaul if it is to meet today’s data and information needs associated with preparing for, mitigating, and building resilience to a troubling set of climate change consequences. Just under $2 billion in federal funding goes to support climate and global change research in the agencies and departments participating in the USGCRP.  The National Academy of Sciences has put forth thoughtful recommendations for updating the program’s research elements and priorities, but, as far as we can tell, the program has not begun to substantially re-direct its research agenda and budget.  Moreover, an examination of available budget materials, especially the annual report to Congress, Our Changing Planet, reveals reporting practices so unclear and inconsistent as to defy meaningful oversight.  This first post in a new CSW investigative series about the USGCRP begins to diagnose the obstacles to reform, and makes recommendations for improving government accountability.

post by Anne Polansky and Rick Piltz

The US Global Change Research Program started out as a bold and farsighted experiment in cooperation and coordination among governmental institutions, typically averse to working together on common problem-solving.  Established in 1988 and 1989 by a handful of forward-looking scientists and managers who recognized the interdisciplinary nature of the climate change problem and the need for cross-cutting research to better understand how Earth’s climate system was being affected by human activity, the USGCRP got off to a good start in the early 1990s.  However, it has never reached its full potential as envisioned by its creators and by the US Congress in passing the Global Change Research Act of 1990.  The basic idea was to build an integrated research program out of building blocks (research programs) distributed across multiple agencies and departments, to help minimize both research gaps and overlaps, and to maximize the ability to monitor and gauge the way natural systems were being affected by the global warming trend.  The collective work of the USGCRP has been instrumental in advancing scientific understanding of change in the physical climate system and developing US scientific contributions to the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  But, yet to recover from damage done to it under the Bush Administration, the USGCRP today is too dis-integrated under various agency agendas, has not kept pace with the need to focus research and resources on studying and assessing accelerating climate change impacts, and is not effectively providing the knowledge and tools essential for adequate planning and preparedness for a climate-disrupted future. 

While far from perfect, the USGCRP made great strides throughout the 1990s.  However, under the Bush administration, the USGCRP (renamed the Climate Change Science Program in 2002, then given its original name back in 2009) was damaged in several key ways:  funding for key observational and research activities was ratcheted down (and masked by clever budget reporting tricks, such as adding existing programs to the USGCRP budget), a national program for assessing climate change impacts was terminated and its findings suppressed, satellite observations were compromised by pitting climate information needs against those associated with defense and national security, and the overall research agenda was packaged into 21 separate research reports that represented good science but had limited value for informing public policy. The program coordination office was restricted in its ability to communicate and to bring about actual coordination and integration of research agendas.  The dysfunction is now systemic, and debilitating to the original purpose of the Program.

It is time to revisit, revise, and renovate the USGCRP.  Strong leadership by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and oversight by Congress is sorely needed.  Doing so will require a solid understanding of how federal dollars are being spent on data collection, computer modeling, impacts assessments, analysis and evaluation of adaptation and mitigation options, and other essential activities.  Such an understanding, however, is seriously impeded by a lack of transparency, clarity, and consistency in budget reporting. 

In particular, recent recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences in Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change should be heeded.  The NAS/National Research Council calls for a particular focus on the following key topics:

• Extreme Weather and Climate Events and Disasters

• Sea Level Rise and Melting Ice

• Freshwater Availability

• Agriculture and Food Security

• Managing Ecosystems

• Human Health

• Impact on the Economy

The NAS/NRC also lays out six more conceptual priorities:

(1) Reorganize the program around integrated scientific-societal issues to facilitate cross-cutting research focused on understanding the interactions among the climate, human, and environmental systems and on supporting societal responses to climate change.

(2) Establish a US climate observing system, defined as including physical, biological, and social observations, to ensure that data needed to address climate change are collected and continued.

(3) Develop the science base and infrastructure to support a new generation of coupled Earth system models to improve attribution and prediction of high-impact regional weather and climate, to initialize seasonal-to-decadal climate forecasting, and to provide predictions of impacts affecting adaptive capacities and vulnerabilities of environmental and human systems.

(4) Strengthen research on adaptation, mitigation and vulnerability

(5) Initiate a national assessment process with broad stakeholder participation to determine the risks and costs of climate change impacts on the US and to evaluate options for responding.

(6) Coordinate federal efforts to provide climate services (scientific information, tools, and forecasts) routinely to decision makers.

To what extent are these priorities being factored into budget planning by the agencies participating in the USGCRP? 

The answer to this basic question is difficult to determine from available resources, including each of the detailed budget documents accompanying the President’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget request to Congress. 

And the document that is supposed to tie everything together is increasingly inadequate for tracking budget and programmatic changes over time.  Required by the Global Change Research Act, the annual report to Congress of the budget elements of the USGCRP—Our Changing Planet (OCP)—has deteriorated in most of its budget reporting to the use of categories so overly aggregated and disconnected from how research activites are actually organized that it is impossible to tell how much is being spent on what, let alone why, and how much the budgets for specific program activities are changing from year to year.  Anyone relying on Our Changing Planet to conduct meaningful evaluation and oversight of the USGCRP budget as it pertains to specific programs would confront an opaque presentation and have little to go on.   


For example, in OCP for Fiscal Year 2010, recently made available electronically, the agency-specific budget tables (in Appendix B) are aggregated differently in each case, some by office within agencies, some by macro topic.  For example, the budget table for NASA is broken down into the following categories:  Atmospheric Composition, Climate Variability, Carbon Cycle, Water Cycle, Ecosystems, Land Cover Land use Change, and Human Contributions and Responses.  These are not actual NASA satellite and research programs, they are thematic categories.  The budget table for NOAA uses these categories:  Laboratories and Cooperative Institutes; NOAA Competitive Research Program; NOAA Climate Data and Information; NOAA Climate Operations; NOAA Climate Regimes and Ecosystem Productivity; and NOAA Operational Climate Programs.  These categories do not match the way climate research program activities are identified and described on the NOAA Website, nor do they provide as much information about how specific program activities are budgeted. The categories for EPA are:  Air quality research and assessment; Research and assessments of the integrated effects of global change; and Water quality/aquatic ecosystems research and assessment. Thus, each agency goes its own way, with no interagency consistency in reporting and identifying the components of their USGCRP-related activities.

Both the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have lamented the problems associated with reporting of climate change funding, in the President’s fiscal year budget requests and elsewhere. 

Quoting from a December 2008 CRS Report for Congress, Climate Change:  Federal Program Funding and Tax Incentives

“Interpreting how funding relates to levels of effort to address climate change is challenged by several reporting issues…  Actual funding for climate change activities is clouded by the levels of aggregation of the budget request, changes in scope of what is reported, changes in accounting methods over time, lack of descriptions by agencies in their budget documentation, and omissions of reporting of some arguably climate-related activities in the overall program.  While some improvements were made following [a 2006 GAO investigation], many issues persist, confounding analysis of the climate change funding.”

In 2006, the GAO investigated the Administration’s reporting practices for climate change activities and recommended greater clarity and consistency.

(See GAO, 2006 (.pdf): Climate Change: Greater Clarity and Consistency Are Needed in Reporting Federal Climate Change Funding.

“Federal Expenditure Reports” prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2005-2007 (required by congressional action) complied with many of the GAO recommendations, but fully consistent accounting remained unavailable, particularly for years prior to 2006, CRS found, adding, “inconsistencies continue to hamper precise comparisons of budgets for climate change activities from year-to-year.”  However, these more detailed reports are no longer required. 

Both the Office of Management and Budget and Congress should establish a set of budget reporting guidelines that provide the level of detail, consistency, and clarity needed to understand in what ways federally supported climate change research activities need to be reoriented to satisfy the recommendations of the Academy, and thus, society.  In 2007, Climate Science Watch wrote about the overall governance problem presented by tricky budget reporting:  “Tracking the climate science budget could be likened to piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle for which the overall picture keeps changing and pieces keep sliding off and being added to the table; even an expert in 3-D chess would be challenged by the task.”  Unfortunately, the same is still true.  New guidelines should require that name changes of programs and activities be logged and tracked to facilitate year-to-year tracking, that more detailed line-item budget information be made available to Congress and the public, and that all inclusions (and exclusions) from the USGCRP umbrella be explained and justified.  Else, the USGCRP will remain adrift, unchecked, and unaccountable to the taxpayer and elected officials.

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