Needs for the Climate Change Research Program of the Future

The USGCRP currently involves 13 federal departments and agencies, and many of these organizations have several different agencies or groups active in climate change research. This scope of engagement is essential given the broad range of public interests that will be affected by climate change. However, this broad scope and inconsistencies between the mandates of the Global Change Research Act and the narrower missions of the participating agencies create a difficult and complex management environment. For example, as noted in the previous subsection, gaps between agency missions have led to weaknesses and gaps in certain research areas. Furthermore, progress on several key crosscutting issues, such as maintaining and improving climate-related observational programs, have suffered from a lack of leadership and coordination (e.g., NRC, 2008d). Thus, it is not clear that the USGCRP as presently con stituted can adequately address the full set of research challenges posed by current demands for climate change research.

How then might the federal climate change research effort be structured to meet these new challenges? The Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change considered several alternatives, each with its strengths and weaknesses. One model is to create a new office or agency that aggregates all federal climate change research into one organizational structure. This harkens to the call in the 1990s for a National Institute of the Environment to be the home for all federal environmental research. An NRC report examined this proposal and saw several problems with as well as several advantages to this approach (NRC, 1993). For example, a consolidated aproach would improve cross-agency coordination and planning, while a more distributed responsibility for environmental research leads to improved linkages between researchers and decision makers. The report called for "cultural changes" in the practice of environmental research in the federal government, including greater engagement of the ecological, social, and engineering sciences. It also considered several options for organizing these changes and suggested that the best immediate step would be to retain the multiagency support of environmental research but with better coordination and attention to neglected priorities, rather than consolidate research into a single agency.

For climate change research, a consolidated agency would facilitate coordination and allow for priority setting based on a systematic analysis, such as the seven research themes identified in Chapter 4. Neglected high-priority areas could thus be allocated the resources needed to move them forward. Decision makers and the public would also have a single entity to consult on climate change. However, there are many disadvantages to consolidation, and those may outweigh its benefits. First, given the many challenges facing the federal government at present, it is unlikely that a proposal to create a new agency that would pull current research functions out of existing agencies could reach an actionable level on the federal agenda. Second, one of the strengths of the USGCRP is that it encourages engagement by multiple agencies and, thus, has been able to adapt relatively easily as concerns about and needs for scientific understanding of climate change have spread to affect the missions of more and more agencies. This trend is likely to continue, especially as more agencies are involved in efforts to respond to climate change. Openness to new partnerships, which is a strength of the current USGCRP, would likely be reduced with the creation of a new agency. In addition, a single agency would be limited in its ability to draw on the strengths of the non-USGCRP components of currently participating agencies. For example, NASA's Earth science activities benefit significantly from their integration with other complementary aspects of NASA's portfolio. These benefits could be significantly compromised if the Earth science activity were moved from NASA to another entity.

While there are surely other alternative arrangements for organizing federal climate research, the main alternative to a consolidated agency is some sort of interagency program, ideally one that retains the current and historical strengths of the USGCRP while addressing its known weaknesses. The major advantage of the continuance of the USGCRP in this coordinating role is that the program already exists and has the legal authority and mandate to engage in a cross-agency research program. In fact, a careful reading of the Global Change Research Act of 1990 indicates that the program was intended to accomplish many of the goals identified in this report. The main disadvantages of a continuation of the USGCRP are the weaknesses highlighted in the previous subsection. Hence, provided that these weaknesses can be addressed, the panel finds that a modified USGCRP could serve the role of leading and coordinating an integrated, decision-relevant, and expanded climate change research enterprise that continues to pursue an enhanced understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change while also improving understanding of and support for responses to climate change. Indeed, as of the writing of this report, the USGCRP is already engaging in a strategic planning process to address the weaknesses and pursue the opportunities identified in past reviews of the program. The next two subsections describe ways in which the current program might be reshaped to better meet the challenges of the new era of climate change research while maintaining its existing strengths.

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