Evaluation of Near-Term Priorities
Near-term priorities (efforts) provide a bridge between the generalities of the themes, the focus of the 21 priorities, and the launching of more specific actions under the umbrella of the ORPP. The committee appreciates the necessity to focus early research efforts where they will have the most impact and where they can be implemented readily. Given these constraints, the priority areas selected by the JSOST appear to be appropriate and, although they are not as clearly tied to the 21 priorities as they might have been, will advance the ocean research agenda. The following sections provide the committee’s general comments on the near-term priority selection process and specific comments on each of the four near-term priority selections.
Between publication of the first draft and release of the near-term information, the title of the section changed from near-term efforts to near-term priorities. The committee would suggest that calling the four topics “priorities” creates confusion with the 21 priorities and that the plan would be better served by labeling these as research efforts or research packages since they incorporate work within many of the 21 priority areas.
The basis for the selection of the near-term priorities (this term is used here since it is used in the plan) is unclear. The introduction to the near-term priority section identifies criteria, but these criteria are not referenced in the discussion of individual near-term priorities. For example, partnership was introduced as a criterion, but no examples of partnership
TABLE 6-1 Committee’s Review of Linkages between Short- and Long-Term Priorities
5, 6, 7
15, 16, 17
Overarching Opportunities (observing systems)
were provided. More support for the priorities could be gained by a short explanation of why each was selected.
There is no discussion of the linkage between the near-term priorities and the 21 priorities and 6 themes. In a quick exercise, the committee attempted to map the linkages and identified seven longer-term priorities that might be addressed in part by the four near-term priorities (Table 6-1). Simple but explicit discussion of where the JSOST sees these linkages would benefit understanding and eventual management of the program. The discussion below of the variability meridional overturning circulation (MOC) highlights the need to explain the relationship between the selected priorities and ongoing research efforts.
The supporting text indicates that these near-term priorities incorporate aspects of each of the three overarching opportunities—forecasting ocean processes, scientific support for ecosystem management, and deployment of elements of the ocean observing system. While such an approach serves many of the 21 priorities, it also establishes accomplishment of the overarching opportunities as a priority in itself. It would be useful for the plan to speak to the role of the overarching opportunities versus the themes and priorities.
The near-term priorities are stated without any reference to milestones or metrics that might be used to manage or measure progress toward meeting the objectives behind them. These milestones and/or metrics do not have to be extremely detailed, but they should be sufficient to let the reader understand that some thought has been given to measurement of progress.
It is not clear in this section whether or not these near-term priorities will be undertaken with additional resources or whether these research areas will require drawing resources from other programs. If these are truly new efforts rather than the continuation of ongoing programs, the context for evaluating the prioritization will depend on its impacts on
ongoing programs that are important to progress under the 21 longer-term priorities. For instance, will work on the MOC in the North Atlantic result in a diminution of efforts to understand climate variability in the Pacific?
The discussions accompanying the description of the four near-term priorities, especially the last two, are uninspiring. As noted earlier in this report, other entities (e.g., U.S. Committee on Ocean Policy, Pew Oceans Commission, and Joint Ocean Commission Initiative) have made compelling arguments for the need for action to move ocean science forward to support critical societal needs. A few examples under each near-term priority would be valuable in illustrating what might happen if the research proposed for the priority is carried out. For example, the discussion of forecasting the response of coastal ecosystems can be tied directly to legitimate scientific questions about Hurricane Katrina and its impacts and how better information would have informed sounder decisions in the days preceding Katrina’s arrival on the coast.
The committee understands that the objective of the ORPP is to define a 10-year research program. The committee is concerned that the execution of the 21 priorities is a major undertaking, and that the near-term work as described represents only a small part of the total research challenge developed within the 21 priorities. The committee understands that support for the near-term priority selections reflects the capability to initiate work in the selected priority areas in fiscal year (FY) 2007 or 2008, or represents continuation or expansion of FY 2006 work. However, starting with efforts that seemingly relate to less than half of the 21 priorities could leave too much to be accomplished in the later years. The remaining work on the 21 priorities not captured or started in the first effort would represent a gargantuan task, suggesting that perhaps more should be done to bring work on other priorities into the near-term. On the other hand, if the near-term priorities represent a refocus of effort to those activities that will lead to full implementation of the 21 priority efforts in the later years (FY 2009 and beyond), then these near-term priority selections represent a logical path to full implementation of the ORPP. The committee would clearly support such an approach, assuming that ongoing research efforts essential to achieving the longer-term priorities are not disrupted without careful consideration.
The descriptions of the near-term priorities tend to be rather prescriptive in some areas where the scientific community needs greater flexibility and where it might well develop the methodologies to be followed. (An example is given in the discussion of the comparative analyses priority below.) While the development of the overall priority
list was based on some interaction with the scientific community outside the government, it is not obvious that the near-term priorities reflect much input from this community. There is a clear need for existing and future agency programs to mix the ideas of researchers who are working at the edge with the challenges faced by agency science personnel.
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC NEAR-TERM PRIORITIES
Forecasting the Response of Coastal Ecosystems
The substance of this near-term priority merits its inclusion. As noted above, the support for this priority would be improved by some reference as to why it was selected and its ties to ongoing research in this field.
While the priority area appears to be appropriate and is a good candidate for immediate work, the proposed approach appears to be too limited and prescriptive by specifying only comparative analysis. In addition to comparative analysis, there is also an urgent need to improve our understanding of marine ecosystem organization and function. Although it is important to have modeling frameworks, by adopting “consistent modeling frameworks” the resultant research might be limited to a select group of modeling approaches, stifle innovation, and lock agencies into a single family of models when science dictates the consideration of multiple approaches. The research for this priority would optimally include process studies and would address restoration and management strategies.
Sensors for Marine Ecosystems
This topic appears appropriate and a good candidate for immediate action. The narrative description could provide a more compelling discussion of the need for this research and the benefits that it can bring to the table.
Assessing MOC Variability
While this near-term priority may be appropriate and reasonable, the description lacks discussion of why research in this specific region is a priority and how the proposed research ties into similar ongoing activities. Because of concerns about the description, the committee undertook a more detailed discussion of this priority.
If understanding, assessing, and predicting U.S. climate is considered in the prioritization process, an argument could easily be made for a focus on decadal variations in the North Pacific, which provides “upstream” ocean influences to North American weather patterns and to West Coast ecosystems. In terms of potential impact on European weather and climate (and on Atlantic Ocean ecosystems), a rapid decrease of the Atlantic MOC represents a substantial hazard. According to paleo-climate records and climate models, such a collapse has a low probability of occurrence. Because of recent melting of ice sheets, there is heightened concern that the possibility of such a change is increasing (NRC, 2002). Models can potentially quantify the risks, but existing models have to be improved because there are considerable differences among them. Also, any model projections have to be initialized accurately with a comprehensive ocean state estimation. Monitoring the branches of the Atlantic MOC is a wise thing to do in any case.
Efforts on the MOC near-term priority are already well under way. The Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) Atlantic program focus on the MOC has resulted in considerable progress on process studies to improve climate and ocean general circulation models, and the United Kingdom Rapid Climate Change Programme (RAPID) in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded and deployed a monitoring array of 22 moorings across the North Atlantic at 26.5ºN.
The MOC near-term priority links to several longer-term research priorities listed under the “The Ocean’s Role in Climate,” “Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards,” and “Improving Ecosystem Health” themes, but these connections are not elucidated in the ORPP.
ADDRESSING THE STATEMENT OF TASK AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In Task 6, the committee was asked to assess whether the ORPP successfully identifies the highest near-term research priorities to address
the goals and expected societal results. The committee believes that the near-term priorities selected by the JSOST address areas that are of major concern to society and on which substantial progress can and should be made during the next few years. However, a clear rationale is not provided for selecting these four topics as the absolute highest priorities; it is possible that other, equally meritorious, selections could have been made. In addition, the selected near-term priorities are not as clearly tied to the 21 priorities as they might have been.
Task 4 asks the committee to assess whether there is an appropriate balance between short-term (2-5 years) and longer-term (5-10 years) priorities. The discussion of the near-term priorities does not provide a clear assessment of the starting point for determining progress toward priority accomplishment or milestones on this path, and the balance of effort between near- and longer-term efforts is not described. These issues may be left for the implementation strategy, but they frustrate determination of the feasibility of achieving the near-term priorities within the two to five-year time frame. Also, it is not clear how the time frame for the near-term priorities meshes with the timing of the 21 priorities—are they meant to be sequential or parallel efforts?
RECOMMENDATION: The specific linkages of each of the near-term priorities to the 21 longer-term priorities should be identified. Identification of these linkages would more clearly show the relationships among priority efforts and the path that near-term research will follow over the long term.
RECOMMENDATION: Milestones and metrics should be identified to measure accomplishment and progress. Such an explanation would better identify the relative magnitude of the envisioned programs and establish a basis for determination of progress.
RECOMMENDATION: The near-term priorities should include a description of the relationship between what is already being done in each area and how it will be expanded under the research plan. This should provide significant information that will help determine the time frame for attaining each near-term priority.
RECOMMENDATION: The ORPP should identify how the near-term priorities on meridional overturning circulation relate to ongoing Atlantic and Pacific research efforts. This would help identify possible synergisms and facilitate effective use of research resources. Both Atlantic and Pacific efforts are important to understanding the ocean’s role in abrupt climate change and its impacts, and further explanation of their relationship would clarify the future path for this research area.
RECOMMENDATION: Research priorities should not include text that appears to prescribe the types of research to be used to achieve the goals. Wherever possible, the descriptions of research should provide researchers with the opportunity to determine the best approaches.
RECOMMENDATION: The time frames for conducting near-term and longer-term research should be clearly defined with a discussion of the balance of effort between the two sets of priorities. A sequential approach to these priorities within a 10-year research period would not be adequate to address the research needs identified in the 21 longer-term priorities.