A multidisciplinary approach to researching Earth’s biogeochemical system was first considered in the mid-1970s, when scientists became aware that humans might be perturbing the climate, as well as the biology, physics, and chemistry of the global environment. A number of reports published during the 1980s (e.g., by the U.S. Department of Energy [DOE, 1977, 1980], the National Research Council [e.g., NRC, 1983, 1986], the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] Earth System Sciences Committee [ESSC 1986, 1988]), suggested that a coordinated national research effort was needed to effectively observe and study the Earth system. The first efforts at a coordinated government research strategy came in late 1986, when NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) began developing parallel global change programs. In 1987 eight agencies formed the federal interagency Committee on Earth Sciences (now known as the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources [CENR]). When the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) was created by a presidential initiative in 1989, CENR formed a Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR)1 to provide leadership and coordinate the activities of this new program.

The U.S. Global Climate Research Act of 1990 codified the existing interagency relationships. According to the act the GCRP was to be “aimed at understanding and responding to global change, including the cumulative effects of human activities and natural processes on the environment, to promote discussions toward international protocols in global change research, and for other purposes” (see Appendix C). The act specifically called for a 10-year research plan to be submitted to Congress at least every three years specifying “the goals and priorities for Federal global change research which most effectively advance scientific understanding of global change and provide usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change.” Other requirements of the 10-year research plan include descriptions of activities necessary to meet the plan’s goals, identification of existing federal programs that contribute to the GCRP, description of the role of each federal agency and department in implementing the plan, recommendations for international coordination of research activities, and estimates, to the extent practical, of federal funding for the activities in the plan.

In addition to the responsibility for planning and coordinating national global change research, the Global Change Research Act mandated that the GCRP produce periodic scientific assessments of the research results, prepare an annual report to Congress summarizing the program’s activities, and coordinate with other nations. In 2001 the GCRP published its first assessment of results from the research program and implications for the United States (NAST, 2001). The Act also states that the GCRP should retain the NRC to “evaluate the scientific content of the plan” and to provide information and advice, in particular about “priorities for future global change research” (see Appendix C). The NRC has provided ongoing advice to the GCRP through many reports and has convened numerous public meetings of the several NRC boards and committees that focus on global change.

Since its creation in 1990, the GCRP has made substantial investments in the following general areas of climate change and global change research: measurements of the physical, chemical, and biological processes responsible for changes in the Earth system; documentation of global change; studies of past changes in the Earth system; prediction and simulation of global environmental processes; and research initiatives to understand the nature of and interactions among global change processes. The GCRP reports numerous scientific insights and accomplishments of the program in the annual publication of its report to Congress titled Our Changing Planet (e.g., GCRP, 2002, 2003). The program did not release publicly any ten-year plans for global change research before the draft plan this committee is reviewing. The annual publication of Our Changing Planet provides some indication of the GCRP’s future plans and vision. For the most part, however, the GCRP has comprised atmospheric, oceanic, and land-surface research activities conducted by the individual agencies, which coordinate with each other in differing degrees.

During the late 1990s the GCRP began to develop a comprehensive ten-year research plan. It held three planning meetings with agency representatives and the science community between 1998 and 2001. The NRC was asked to provide guidance in the form of a report describing the scientific issues of global change, the key scientific questions that should be addressed by the GCRP, and research approaches to address these questions. In response to this request the NRC Committee on Global Change Research (CGCR) produced Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade (NRC, 1999b). The CGCR also discussed a draft GCRP draft ten-year plan at a public meeting on January 23, 2001.


The membership of the Subcommittee on Global Change Research has since grown to 13 agencies and departments: NASA, NOAA, NSF, Environmental Protection Agency, DOE, Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior/U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Health and Human Services, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Smithsonian Institution. The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the OMB provide oversight on behalf of the Executive Office of the President.

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