Does the USGCRP have high-level political buy-in for connecting climate science to society?


Einstein Memorial, National Academy of Sciences (Source: NAS, photo by Alex Jamison)

The new U.S. Global Change Research Program Strategic Plan is on the right track in seeking to connect scientific research and assessments to policy and societal management, we told ClimateWire, but it’s not at all clear that the plan has buy-in at a high enough political level to really drive and defend new program and budget priorities.  The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences raised similar concerns in its review, released January 5, of the USGCRP draft plan.

Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program, National Research Council of the National Academies, A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Draft Strategic Plan

With a public comment period and the NRC review of the draft plan completed, the USGCRP Strategic Plan is scheduled for release at the end of January 2012.  Draft U.S. Global Change Research Program Strategic Plan 2012-2021

The USGCRP plan, now being updated for the first time since 2003, aims to build on the $2.5 billion federal program’s strengths in scientific research and global observing systems by significantly enhancing the program’s science-for-society component. The plan sets goals of building sustained capacity to assess impacts and vulnerabilities, informing decisions on adaptation and mitigation, and advancing public communication and education.

The National Academies press release on the NRC review had this:


WASHINGTON — The draft 10-year strategic plan for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) — which shapes and coordinates climate and related global environmental change research efforts of numerous agencies and departments across the federal government — is “evolving in the right direction,” but several key issues could strengthen these planning efforts, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The committee that wrote the report found that…the draft plan does not always acknowledge significant challenges, such as increasingly constrained budget resources, involved in meeting its goals, nor does it offer clear strategies for how such challenges could be addressed. …

The committee…also stressed that without a strong governance structure that could compel reallocation of funds to serve overarching priorities, the program would likely continue as merely a compilation of efforts deriving from each member agency’s individual priorities. …

Lauren Morello at ClimateWire (subscription) reported on January 10:

If the Obama administration gets its way, the federal climate change research program will soon broaden its focus from monitoring and modeling to providing information that can guide policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to environmental shifts.

That’s the vision laid out by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in its new draft 10-year strategic plan. The proposal calls for experts in ecology, social sciences, education and communication to join forces with the physical scientists who have dominated federal climate change research for the past two decades.

But there’s a hitch, and it’s a big one: Where will the money come from?

“In an era of increasingly constrained budget resources, those questions of how will become paramount,” says a National Academy of Sciences review of the administration’s plan, released late last week.

Will the Obama administration stand up for the priorities in this plan and push for funding it when the going gets rough with the denialists in Congress, and with the budget cutting that will be forced for years to come under the debt-ceiling budget deal agreed to by Obama and Congress in 2011?

And the more the program communicates with real integrity about the climate change problem, the more it develops relevant, ongoing climate change assessments and gives meaningful advice to ‘decisionmakers,’ the more it may become an even bigger target for Congressional global warming denialists and budget slashers. (See House Science Committee Republicans aim to slash climate and sustainable energy programs.)

The proposed NOAA Climate Service was disallowed in the fiscal 2012 NOAA appropriations bill.  (See Congress kills request for National Climate Service.)  The proposed Climate Service is a management tool to rationalize a set of ongoing activities at NOAA, but it is seen as controversial because it implies taking climate change and climate preparedness seriously.


The science academy’s warning comes weeks before the White House releases the president’s fiscal 2013 budget request, the latest front in an all-out war over federal spending that has dominated discussions on Capitol Hill for the last year. …

Experts say the wide-reaching USGCRP, which encompasses 13 federal agencies, appears to have survived the last round of budget fights largely intact, receiving most of the $2.6 billion requested by the White House for fiscal 2012.

But they’re not confident that luck will hold.

One thing we started to see in the fiscal 2012 appropriations process was an effort to identify program activities related to climate change adaptive preparedness and take them out.  (See Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes, July 2011 CSW post on early efforts by House Republicans to curtail budgets and programs at the Dept of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Dept of Homeland Security relating to climate change preparedness.)

We did not see it take too much effect for fiscal 2012. The science programs mostly made their budget requests or close to it, and the destructive policy riders were mostly taken out of the appropriations bills – although NOAA did get a cut in their climate research budget, and the development of the essential Joint Polar Satellite System remains underfunded.  We can expect the attacks on climate change research and planning to intensify during the coming period.


Rick Piltz, a former USGCRP employee who now heads Climate Science Watch, called the plan “very well-intentioned” but said “it’s not at all clear that this strategic plan has buy-in at a high enough level politically to really drive priorities.”

Others say they’re impatient to see USGCRP broaden its scope, calling the change long overdue.

“Right now, and maybe since 2007 or 2008, there’s really been an explosion of interest in adaptation: What do we do to prepare for and manage the impacts of climate change?,” said Susanne Moser, a scientist and consultant based in Santa Cruz, Calif. …

She estimates that just 1 to 3 percent of USGCRP spending has been directed to research on climate change’s social and ecological impacts and strategies to adapt to those changes. …

Said Moser, “I’m not surprised that it’s finally happening — maybe just annoyed it’s happening so late. But most of all, welcoming it.”

The NRC’s critique is knowledgeable and sophisticated. I think they see the problems. It’s really a pretty serious critique – the tones are measured, but it’s going to be very difficult to make some of the things they’re calling for happen, including budget support for new and expanded USGCRP priorities and strong enough central governance of the program to require participating agencies to allocate their budgets to the highest USGCRP-wide strategic priorities..

The USGCRP budget for research, observing systems, modeling, and assessments is disaggregated, with about a dozen participating agencies. The disaggregated budget has been a problem for the USGCRP since day one back in about 1990, because it makes it difficult for the program to focus budget and program in a coordinated way on new and strategic priorities. Each agency has its own statutes, missions, and programs. And the USGCRP budget is in about a half-dozen different appropriations bills, so Congressional funding and oversight of climate research is balkanized.

I think it has been, and remains, the case that it is not yet a high-enough priority among the political elite to drive this program to come up with answers for dealing with climate change.  The political elite is not yet ready to develop an effective policy and management framework for the climate change problem.  If they were, they would require a more focused research and decision-support program, with stronger high-level governance and a substantially higher budget.

I think when we ask the principal-level USGCRP leaders at, say, NASA or the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy or the U.S. Geological Survey, “How much will this Strategic Plan affect your program and budget request items?”  I expect they will say, “not that much.” They’re locked in to what they’re already doing for the most part.  And there’s nothing in the plan that says ‘DOE will make these changes, NSF will make these changes, USDA will make these changes.’ For what the program is willing and able at this point to say about that, we are referred to a forthcoming USGCRP implementation plan, to come out sometime in 2012.

Earlier posts:
Draft federal climate research plan gives new emphasis to ‘decision support,’ sustained assessments, and communications

Climate Science Watch Public review comment on the USGCRP draft Strategic Plan

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