Next Steps for the USGCRP

A careful reading of the Global Change Research Act indicates that the legislation provides most of the necessary authority for implementing a strategically integrated climate change research program (see Appendix E). The act envisions a program that covers the full spectrum of activities from understanding climate change and its interactions with other global changes and stresses through developing and improving responses to these changes. The act also mandates research that is closely aligned with decision-making needs, including decisions related to the nation's energy, natural resources, and public policy programs.

The USGCRP has achieved many of the original goals of the act. However, as discussed above, in other areas some critical weaknesses and shortcomings have emerged. As the climate research program expands to include a greater emphasis on use-inspired and decision-relevant research, additional gaps and barriers are likely to arise unless steps are taken to address these deficiencies and help the program evolve. Some of the specific changes that are needed include

• Setting priorities more effectively and transparently using clear criteria and evaluative information on program performance;

• Promoting a closer connection between research and decision making by engaging a broader range of federal agencies whose stakeholders and mandates will be affected by climate change and by establishing mechanisms for sustained engagement of users in program decision making;

• Addressing known weaknesses in the program, including development of decision-support resources and engagement of the social and behavioral sciences;

• Fostering integration through targeted research funding opportunities, decision-relevant interdisciplinary research centers, and other means that build on established capacity in universities, national laboratories, and the private sector; and

• Strengthening budget coordination and management to ensure the research activities of participating agencies are sufficiently focused on USGCRP priorities.

As a first step toward developing a more comprehensive and integrated program, a program-level effort could be initiated to identify, recruit, and leverage new partner agencies, including some that have not participated heretofore in climate change issues, and to expand participation by current partner agencies. For example, programs within the Departments of Agriculture or Interior that are responsible for protected lands, national parks, conservation reserves, and activities such as agricultural extension or water resources management have not been very active players in the USGCRP to date, yet they are in the process of developing responses to climate change because their missions will be directly affected by it. Such agencies and programs could play important roles in improving understanding of climate impacts and vulnerabilities and in formulating, evaluating, and improving response strategies. Data collection and research efforts performed by agencies and programs not specifically focused on climate change, such as those at the U.S. Census Bureau or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could likewise contribute substantially to our understanding of both climate change and its interactions with other human and environmental systems. The relative ease with which the USGCRP structure can integrate new agencies or departments is a key advantage over a single consolidated entity or agency. Likewise, some of the traditional research and mission agencies could be more actively involved in engaging with decision makers to help shape the program's scientific agenda and ensure the results are used effectively.

Flexibility is a key advantage of the current USGCRP structure, but, as noted above, this organizational structure has also led to research gaps. One problem is that while the USGCRP might be able to reach agreement about research priorities, the budgets to implement those priorities reside within the partner agencies, where climate change research needs compete with other agency priorities. To address this problem, mechanisms are needed to ensure that research priorities identified by USGCRP are given greater weight by participating agencies, and the USGCRP needs the budgetary authority to implement the priorities it identifies. Improved review and oversight mechanisms, such as coordinated reviews of participating agency budgets (as opposed to merely designating established agency activities as contributions to USGCRP), would help promote accountability and would assist in evaluations of how well the priorities identified by USGCRP are reflected in the programs and budget requests of the participating agencies. Mechanisms are also needed to ensure that critical areas of research that are currently underrepresented in federal agency activities receive appropriate attention. Finally—and perhaps most difficult—program managers need to have the authority, willingness, and capability to emphasize the interdisciplinary, decision-relevant science needed to both improve understanding and support effective responses to climate change. Changes to the Global Change Research Act or other mechanisms, such as an Executive Order or performance measures, may be appropriate means to implement these changes and strengthen the program's budget coordination and alignment with identified research priorities.

Changes in the USGCRP will require strong leadership. The importance of effective leadership, with adequate support and programmatic and budgetary authority to coordinate and prioritize across agencies, has been recognized in a number of previous NRC reviews of the USGCRP (NRC,2004b, 2005e, 2007f, 2009k). Such leadership will be essential for setting priorities and building a more balanced and integrative program, ensuring effective interactions between federal research activities and action-oriented programs (as discussed in the next section of the chapter) and executing the other recommendations in this report. One step that could be taken to improve program leadership could be achieved by assigning higher-level leaders within the partner agencies and organizations to be liaisons to the program. The assignment of seniorlevel, experienced program managers to staff the USGCRP coordination office could increase buy-in from the participating agencies; experienced staff will be needed to address program gaps and help lead interagency program prioritization and coordination. Effective guidance and budget review could be provided by organizations such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the units within the Office of Management and Budget responsible for USGCRP partner agencies.

As noted in the first two sections of the chapter, setting research priorities needs to be an ongoing, iterative process. Such adaptive management of the federal research program would be facilitated by regular strategic planning and reviews that address both specific research areas and the program as a whole. The USGCRP is already required to conduct a strategic review and submit a new strategic plan every 3 years. While there have occasionally been delays in the process, these review and planning exercises have provided useful opportunities for the program to remain flexible and to support emerging priorities. A major focus of future reviews and other ongoing assessment activities within the program should be mapping the priorities, activities, and capabilities of participating agencies onto the goals of the overall research program to identify weaknesses and gaps. Identifying impediments and obstacles that may be contributing to these weaknesses and gaps would also help the program develop specific actions to address these shortcomings and build a more balanced and effective program.

Finally, it might be beneficial to coordinate future reviews of the nation's climate change research program with reviews of the effectiveness of the nation's overall response to climate change in terms of limiting climate change, developing adaptation approaches, and informing effective climate-related decisions. Because coordinated federal efforts to inform, limit, and adapt to climate change are still in early stages of development, it is difficult to offer suggestions as to how this coordination can be achieved, but attention to such coordination will be important (see also Recommendation 6).

Recommendation 5: A single federal entity should be given the authority and resources to coordinate and implement an integrated research effort that supports improving both understanding of and responses to climate change. If several key modifications are made, the U.S. Global Change Research Program could serve this role.

These modifications are described in the paragraphs above and include

• An expanded mission that includes both understanding climate change and supporting effective decisions and actions taken to respond to climate change;

• Establishing a wide range of activities and mechanisms to support two-way flows of information between science and decision making, including improved mechanisms for input from decision makers and other stakeholders on research priorities;

• Establishing more effective mechanisms for identifying and addressing gaps and weaknesses in climate research, as well as the barriers that give rise to such gaps;

• High-level leadership both within the program and among its partner agencies; and

• Budgeting oversight and authority.

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