The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Global Change Research Plan 2012-2021


The USGCRP released its long overdue new strategic plan without fanfare on April 27.  Most notably, the new strategy aims to enhance the federal research program’s science-for-society component by informing decision-makers with good scientific communication.

You can read the National Global Change Research Plan 2012-2021 here.

The last fully-developed USGCRP Strategic Plan was released in July 2003.  CSW published multiple posts and public comments on a review draft of the new Strategic Plan, which can be seen here, here, and here.  This post, which summarizes the main elements of the plan, is the first of a new CSW series on the past, present, and future of the USGCRP.

First, some background:  The USGCRP was created as a presidential initiative in the late 1980s and codified by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990.  The program coordinates the work of 13 departments and agencies that collectively support research and the development of capabilities to respond to climate and global environmental change. Together, the participating agencies are charged with providing “a comprehensive and integrated United States Research Program to assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.”  Investments in observation and monitoring, research and modeling, assessment, information services and outreach totaled about $2 billion in 2010.  Global observing systems and scientific research, in both federal and nongovernmental research institutions, make up the vast majority of the budget.

Throughout its life, the USGCRP has created and maintained a mix of atmospheric, oceanic, land, and space-based observing systems; gained new theoretical knowledge of Earth System processes; advanced understanding of the complexity of the Earth System through predictive modeling; promoted advances in computational capabilities, data management, and information sharing; and developed and harnessed an expert scientific workforce.

The 2012-2021 Strategic Plan sets four goals, three of which are given new and greater emphasis in the USGCRP’s long-standing effort (as encompassed in Goal 1) at enhancing human understanding of the Earth System.

  1. Advance Science
  2. Inform Decisions
  3. Conduct Sustained Assessments
  4. Communicate and Educate

Goal 1: Advancing scientific knowledge of the integrated, natural, and human components of the earth system

The Strategic Plan lays out a well-developed research agenda associated with this goal. Indeed, this section is built upon decades of major research and occupies about half the document.   Goal 1 objectives neatly summarize the USGCRP research agenda, while adding a new component with Objective 1.2:

  • 1.1– Earth system understanding
  • 1.2– Science for adaptation and mitigation: Advancing understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of integrated human-natural systems.
  • 1.3– Integrated observations
  • 1.4– Integrated modeling
  • 1.5– Information management and sharing

Objective 1.2 aims to advance use-inspired science (defined as science necessary to improve fundamental understanding in areas important to society) to assess the vulnerabilities to global change, understand the societal and ecological characteristics that confer resilience in the face of these changes, and support the adaptation and mitigation responses to the risks these changes pose.

Sounds great, but how is this going to be accomplished?  The document identifies four “themes” associated with this effort.  These include identifying and understanding key environmental and societal vulnerabilities to global change over a range of time scales; developing a knowledge base to support regional and sectoral responses to global change; developing a knowledge base to support responses to global scale threats; and finally, creating and applying the tools and approaches needed to iteratively manage the risks of global change.

Assessment of human-environment systems together is so important, the document stresses, because the interdependence of Earth system processes affects ecosystems, human communities, and socio-economic sectors.  Key resources – water, energy, and food – are strongly connected to the environment and are thus vulnerable to global change.  To understand vulnerability in these sectors we need to know not only about the natural processes involved in global change, but also about human behavior that influences production and consumption.  With this in mind, potentially risk can be managed more effectively.

Managers and policymakers will need to manage trade-offs among food, energy, and water demands in a changing climate while minimizing risks. Decisions made by farmers, land managers, and policymakers will benefit greatly from a synthesis of inputs from economists, social scientists, natural scientists, and modelers.  The USGCRP can address decision-making needs through the coordination of social and natural sciences research across member agencies.

The social, behavioral, and economic sciences are also required to move adaptation efforts and build resilient qualities in communities across the nation.  These same disciplines should be used to improve understanding of how humans impact Earth processes at the global scale.  For example, understanding the decisions leading to different types of energy use could be useful for developing new behaviors and technologies in the future that lessen human impact on atmospheric composition, ocean chemistry, and climate.  The Strategic Plan envisions a new set of tools for environmental management to support responses to global change risks

Of course, the success of this focus on melding natural and social sciences for the purpose of decision-making depends on the existence and effective use of the work of the relevant social scientist experts, as we pointed out earlier in our review comment on the draft plan.  Success will also depend on obtaining the funding needed to allow these plans to move forward.  Given the current politicization of climate change issues, this is something that we definitely cannot assume.

Goal 2:  Inform/Enable Timely Decisions on Adaptation and Mitigation

This goal aims to develop communication and coordination between scientists and decision-makers by making information exchange between the two parties easier.  The Strategic Plan purports to do this by facilitating meaningful engagements between scientists and decision-makers, providing decision-makers with access to relevant and accurate science, guiding and coordinating Federal efforts through the USGCRP, and informing federal responses to climate change.

Objectives toward meeting this goal are as follows:

  • 2.1 – Improve the deployment and accessibility of science to inform adaptation decisions.
  • 2.2 – Inform mitigation decisions by improving the deployment and accessibility of science.
  • 2.3 – Enhance global climate change information by developing tools/ a scientific basis to enable an integrated system of global change information, informed by relevant and timely data to support decision-making.

By improving access to information decision-makers can make more informed adaptive decisions in areas like urban planning.  For example, USGCRP agency data was used to develop Chicago’s Climate Action Plan, which addressed future temperature increases by helping property owners create green landscapes and operate with increased energy efficiency (green roofs and landscapes absorb less heat than concrete or asphalt and therefore lessen the urban heat effect).

Goal 3: Conduct Sustained Assessments that improve the nation’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to global change impacts and vulnerabilities

Scientific assessments survey, integrate, and synthesize information within and between specific scientific disciplines and across sectors and regions.  They can also serve as vehicles for sustained dialogue between decision-makers and stakeholders.  The new Strategic Plan seeks to improve the usefulness of assessments by making sure that those conducted on a regional basis are accessible to the rest of the country.

For example, the USGCRP’s National Climate Assessment will implement a long-term process for evaluating climate risks and opportunities, informing the decision-making processes within regions and sectors.  Building on the importance of climate change to broader global changes, climate change will no longer be considered an independent risk, but an additional factor to existing risk-based assessments.  The National Climate Assessment is also the focal point for the development of the USGCRP interagency global change information system.

Goal 3 requires meeting four objectives:

  • 3.1 – Full integration of the best scientific knowledge
  • 3.2 – Development and deployment of an ongoing assessment process
  • 3.3 – Ensuring the capture of relevant information to inform decision-making
  • 3.4 – Continuous evaluation of progress and employing adapting management over time.

For example, the USGCRP’s sea level and climate models were critical to vulnerability assessments like the one done for New York City, which concluded that up to two feet of sea level rise will increase flooding impacts for the city. The assessment helped to foster new approaches to urban planning and development.

Goal 4: Advance communication and education to broaden public understanding of global change and develop the scientific workforce of the future 

This goal aims to foster greater public understanding of global change and climate change science.  The Strategic Plan aims to gain greater understanding of the public’s science and information needs through engagement and dialogue.

Goal 4 will be met via the accomplishment of four objectives:

  • 4.1 – Strengthen communication and education research
  • 4.2 – Reach diverse audiences
  • 4.3 – Increase engagement
  • 4.4 – Cultivate a scientific workforce

The USGCRP will leverage its partnerships with universities to develop a diverse scientific and interdisciplinary workforce that can integrate socio-economic sciences with physical, chemical, and biological sciences.

The Strategic Plan talks about harnessing the power of social media to integrate the public’s observations on Earth System processes with the data used by researchers, farmers, government officials, and businesses. The use of applications, mobile devices, and social networking sites for this purpose will strengthen the national global change research enterprise and increase public literacy in global change science.

Implementation of these Goals and Objectives is linked to a three year “Roadmap” which will highlight near- and medium-term priorities.  Guideline principles will help the USGCRP to develop these priorities.  These principles will include ensuring the strength of the program’s scientific foundations, building connections within and beyond member agencies, and employing adaptive management to improve program priorities.  Objectives will be prioritized according to their impact on interagency coordination, contribution to fundamental understanding, contribution to improved decision-making, and feasibility of implementation.

Look out for more political analysis/interpretation of The Strategic Plan soon.

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