Priority Setting Criteria

The establishment of criteria by which prospective priorities should be evaluated is critical for effective priority setting. There have been a number of efforts to establish priority-setting criteria for climate-related research (see, e.g., NRC, 2005a, 2009k). Drawing on these analyses, we identify the following three main criteria for setting research priorities for the nation's climate change research enterprise, including (but not limited to) the entity or program responsible for coordinating and implementing research at the federal level (see Recommendation 5 later in this chapter). The numbering of these criteria do not imply relative importance; rather, it is important to consider all three criteria. Bulleted points after each criterion are ways of thinking about priorities in the context of that criterion, not separate criteria.

1. Contribution to fundamental understanding

• Addresses key theoretical, observational, process, or modeling uncertainties;

• Adds new information to important scientific debates; and/or

• Extends research to understudied areas and questions.

2. Contribution to improved decision making

• Addresses topics that have been identified as decision-maker needs or that are key to the nation's economic vitality, its security, or the well-being of its citizens;

• Provides scientific foundations for new solutions or options, especially those that have co-benefits for other environmental or socioeconomic challenges;

• Contributes useful results that can be communicated effectively to decision makers and affected parties or have the potential to establish ongoing dialogue between researchers and users of scientific information; and/or

• Supports risk assessment and management by improving projections or predictions, providing information on probabilities, clarifying societal consequences of key outcomes, or creating decision-support resources.

3. Feasibility of implementation (practical, institutional, and managerial concerns)

• Is ready for implementation (infrastructure, personnel, and facilities are available or could be available to execute the research);

• Will provide usable results on time scales relevant for decision making or improved understanding;

• Contributes to more than one application or scientific discipline; and/or

• Is cost effective (anticipated outcomes or value of information generated by the activity is sufficient to justify both financial and opportunity costs).

The climate change research program envisioned by the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change and encapsulated by these criteria focuses on fundamental, use-inspired research that increases understanding and supports decision making. To develop research that is both fundamental and useful, assessments of research priorities will need to engage both the scientific community and those who will make use of new scientific understanding in decision making, ideally through interactive and ongoing dialogues. A multidirectional flow of information between the decision-making and research communities helps decision makers understand the uses and limits of scientific information and helps the scientific community understand what information and innovations would be most useful to decision makers. This should not be a process in which decision makers have undue influence on the conduct of science or scientific conclusions. Rather, our vision is one of ongoing dialogues that lead to better understanding and improved collaboration. Interactions between decision makers and scientists have the additional benefits of enhancing the trust decision makers place in the scientific process and ensuring that researchers use actual input from decision makers, rather than educated guesswork, to help identify and prioritize research topics.

The research program envisioned in this report involves a broad range of scientific disciplines, including multi- and interdisciplinary science. Identifying and setting research priorities across such a broad and diverse range of scientific activities is much more challenging than priority setting within individual disciplines, which usually share common practices, understandings, and language. Working across areas of research where no unified community has yet been assembled represents an additional challenge, one that requires both careful sampling of views across communities and time to develop mutual understanding.

Because the costs associated with the different climate change research themes described in Chapter 3 are likely to vary by several orders of magnitude, appropriate ranking requires an understanding of the budget constraints agencies will face as well as the benefits that could potentially be realized. As discussed in the preceding recommendation, climate change research should be a flexible and adaptive enterprise, so priorities, and priority-setting criteria and processes, need to be revisited regularly. In addition to changing knowledge needs, advances in methodology or research technology can also motivate a reassessment of priorities in the context of evolving environmental conditions, changing budgets, and other variables that inform research agendas. Given that both climate change and responses to it are ongoing, and that they interact with each other as well as with other changes, such reassessments will be a key element of a healthy research program.

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