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Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research
of today’s most pressing (and expensive) problems, and particularly tomorrow’s problems, require broader perspectives because they often go beyond the ability and authority of any one federal agency, both in their scale/size and scope.
This chapter summarizes those factors that encourage or discourage effective coordination of large-scale research programs, the roles and benefits of coordination, and the recent history of coordinating water resources research. It concludes with a description of three possible options to achieve coordination.
ENCOURAGEMENTS/DISCOURAGEMENTS OF COORDINATION
During its third meeting, the committee heard from a panel of representatives associated with coordinating large research programs, including programs for highway research through the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council (NRC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The panelists were asked to comment on which factors or conditions encourage research coordination and which inhibit it in order to help shed light on an effective model for coordination of water resources research.
Several factors stood out as virtually imperative to successful research coordination. First, a strong sense of the relevance of the research, particularly to decision makers like Congress, is important. Much of the success of the USGCRP was attributed to this factor. A second factor is the availability of sufficient resources to implement coordination. In the case of the Transportation Research Board, stakeholders themselves contribute funds that allow for a coordination mechanism—a circumstance that would be difficult or impossible to reproduce in the water community. A third important facet is a clear legal mandate with broad congressional support, such as the mandates of NEHRP and USGCRP. For example, the NEHRP representative noted that the devastating earthquakes in China in 1975 (Haicheng) and 1976 (Tangshan) contributed to support for U.S. legislation authorizing NEHRP in 1977. The National Earthquake Protection Act mandated tasks for four agencies and a two- to three-year reauthorization cycle.
Other facilitating conditions noted by the panel included having research agendas based on scientific objectives and related to agency missions and mandates—obviously a challenge for research areas like water resources that involve multiple federal agencies. Furthermore, strong leadership despite political changes was cited as important. Several administrative factors were cited, including having the participating agencies play complementary roles, engaging external review panels, and making the agenda-setting process transparent. One panelist felt that placing a coordination committee in an agency that could foster scientific exchanges and professional networks between committee meetings was most effective.