Since its creation over two decades ago, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has played an important role in coordinating the efforts of agencies and departments across the federal government that carry out a wide array of observational and research efforts related to global change, and especially climate change. Such efforts have led to major advances in our understanding of the changing global environment and the countless ways in which human society affects and is affected by such changes. In its new 10-year Strategic Plan, the USGCRP proposes to broaden the Program’s scope in several directions. It is envisioned that with such an evolution, the Program can both continue to advance basic scientific understanding of global change and can actively support society’s efforts to mitigate, adapt, and otherwise respond to those changes.
Building on its long tradition as an independent advisor to the USGCRP, the National Research Council (NRC) appointed a committee to carry out a review of the draft Strategic Plan (as part of its broader, ongoing role in providing whole-program advice to the USGCRP). In this review, the Committee offers an array of suggestions for improving the Plan, ranging from relatively small edits to large questions about the Program’s scope, goals, and capacity to meet those goals. The key high-level messages of this review include:
• The Strategic Plan should offer a more coherent summary of past important accomplishments, including an assessment of successes that were possible only because of USGCRP actions and more explicit discussion about the potential value of future research.
• The proposed broadening of the Program’s scope from climate change only to climate change and “climate-related global changes” is an important step in the right direction. The Program’s legislative mandate is to address all of global change, whether or not related to climate. The Committee concurs that this broader scope is appropriate, but realizes that such an expansion may be constrained by budget realities and by the practical challenge of maintaining clear boundaries for an expanded program. We encourage sustained efforts to expand the scope of the Program over time, along with efforts to better define and prioritize what specific topics are included within the bounds of global change research. As the Program moves in this direction, a high priority is to assure that observing systems are designed to monitor a broad array of global changes, given that valuable information is being lost every year that such efforts are delayed.
• The proposed broadening of the Program – to better integrate the social and ecological sciences, to inform decisions about mitigation and adaptation, and to emphasize decision support more generally – is welcome and in fact essential for meeting the legislative mandate for a program aimed at understanding and responding to global change. Although this broader scope is needed, implementing it presents a grand challenge that should be met with more than just incremental solutions.
• An effective global change research enterprise requires an integrated observational system that connects observations of the physical environment with a wide variety of social and ecological observations. Such a system is a crucial foundation for identifying and tracking
global changes; for evaluating the drivers, vulnerabilities, and responses to such changes; and for identifying opportunities to increase the resilience of both human and natural systems. The Plan needs to describe a clear vision and specific objectives for adding and integrating new types of observations, along with a commitment to some concrete steps towards realizing this vision. The Plan also needs to present an appropriate governance structure and dedicated mechanisms to sustain existing long-term observational systems.
• The USGCRP and its member agencies and programs are lacking in capacity to achieve the proposed broadening of the Program, perhaps most seriously with regard to integrating the social and ecological sciences within research and observational programs, and developing the scientific base and organizational capacity for decision support related to mitigation and adaptation choices. Member agencies and programs have insufficient expertise in these domains and lack clear mandates to develop the needed science.
• In the Committee’s judgment, it would be a mistake to postpone phasing in the newer elements of the Program (as is implied in the implementation section of the Strategic Plan). Rather, we suggest that the Program identify some initial steps it will take in the proposed broadening of scope –including steps to develop critical science capacity that is currently lacking and to improve linkages between the production of knowledge and its use. The Program’s implementation plan should assign responsibilities and resources to specific entities to lead those efforts.
• The proposed broadening of the Program in the areas of education, communication, and workforce development needs more careful thinking, regarding which of these activities belong within the Program, which are best organized by entities outside the Program, and how the former will link to the latter.
• The Strategic Plan and/or the Implementation Plan to follow should establish clear processes for setting priorities and phasing in and out elements of the Program, especially in relation to the planned broadening of its scope. The USGCRP should employ iterative processes for periodically evaluating and updating the Program and its priorities, including processes for consultation with decision makers inside and outside the federal government, regarding the scientific knowledge about global change that would provide the greatest value for them.
• The USGCRP needs an overall governance structure with the responsibility and resources needed to broaden the Program in the directions outlined in the Plan, including an ability to compel reallocation of funds to serve the Program’s overarching priorities. Without such a governance structure, the likely evolution of the Program will be business as usual: a compilation of program elements that derive from each member agency’s individual priorities.