Evaluation of the US Global Change Research Program

Congress established the USGCRP with the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606, Title 15, Chapter 56A). The act set the objective of "assist[ing] the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change systems." With federal support ranging from $2.2 billion in 1990 (in 2008 dollars) to $1.8 billion in 2008, the USGCRP1 has made enormous contributions to the understanding of climate change over the past two decades, including a considerable fraction of the advances summarized in Chapter 2 (see, e.g., USGCRP, 2009b).

There have been a wide range of assessments, observations, and reviews of the USGCRP, including mandated formal reviews by the NRC (1999a, 2003a, 2004b, 2005e, 2007f, 2009k) and assessments and observations by other groups (e.g., the Congressional Research Service). Most of these reviews have praised the USGCRP for its support and facilitation of major advances in our understanding of the natural science aspects of global change, including the physical climate system, atmospheric chemistry, hydrology, and ecosystems, and also for supporting national and international scientific assessments. Earlier reviews of the program also noted significant progress in establishing a comprehensive and inclusive national climate change assessment process and in providing strategic guidance that promoted major advances in observations and modeling, although later reviews have noted a decline in the support for and effectiveness of these activities.

One persistent area of criticism has been the scope and balance of the program. In its early years, the primary research emphasis of USGCRP was on the physical climate system. The program has consistently aspired to call increasing attention to human interactions with the Earth's climate and other environmental systems, but these aspirations have for the most part fallen short (NRC, 2007f). Another persistent criticism has focused on decision support, including progress in decision-support science and whether the program has lived up to its mandate of providing useful information for decision making (NRC, 2007f, 2009k). Identified reasons for these shortcomings include a lack of consistent and adequate funding and institutional support for fundamental

1 Known as the U.S. Climate Change Science Program from 2002 through 2008.

and applied research in the social sciences and a lack of adequate integration across scientific disciplines. Moreover, the failure to follow through with periodic, comprehensive national climate change assessments weakened the program's ability to build a consistent and sustainable relationship with stakeholders. Other troubling signs include a decline in congressional oversight of and interest in the program—measured, for example, by the number of hearings convened to review aspects of the program—and an overall decline of 18 percent (in constant 2008 dollars) in program funding from 1990 to the present (NRC, 2007f, 2009k).

Past NRC reviews have also pointed out weaknesses in the program's structure and institutional processes. For example, the program has relied on individual federal agencies to identify and engage in areas of climate change research aligned with their missions, with only a few, typically episodic and informal, mechanisms for supporting research in areas that do not map onto agency missions. One result of this "stove-piping" has been uneven progress, with some research elements receiving significant funding and making excellent progress, while other research areas—including those associated with several of the crosscutting themes identified in Chapter 4—receiving much less attention. Moreover, without strong coordination, leadership, and buy-in from the full range of federal agencies affected by climate change, the program has been limited in its ability to support the evolving needs for climate science, including research that could support more effective responses to climate change. Additionally, as discussed in the next section of the chapter, the activities of the USGCRP have not been very well coordinated with the Climate Change Technology Program (NRC, 2007f, 2009k) or with preliminary efforts to establish mechanisms to provide "climate services."

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