Although the last section of the Plan is labeled implementation, it offers much less detail than previous Strategic Plans, which provided a clearer picture of how implementation would be developed through program management and review – including explicit discussion of what groups were making decisions, how the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy would collaborate in providing leadership, the role of interagency programmatic working groups in prioritizing specific areas of research, and the role of the NRC and other external bodies in providing external review and validation of the program. The current Plan lacks transparency about such issues. The intent to move to a more integrated approach across the sciences and to better link science producers and users makes it particularly important to provide some insight into how decisions and coordination related to particular research areas will be handled. (For instance, will the current configuration of USGCRP Interagency Working Groups be discontinued? Will a different configuration of Working Groups be formed?)
The Committee understands that some of these details will be provided in a forthcoming Implementation Plan. At present, however, we have only the draft Strategic Plan to comment on. We suggest that the final Strategic Plan or the subsequent Implementation Plan should more fully address the key implementation issues described below.
Governance structure. The Plan calls for a fundamental reorientation of the Program in ways that will require new forms of interagency collaboration and the subordination of some agency priorities to overarching, program-wide goals and national needs. The draft Plan needs to suggest a governance structure that can make the proposed changes reality. This includes a need to spell out the commitments of member agencies to carry out the parts of the Plan (both singly and jointly with other agencies), and a need to discuss processes for priority setting (discussed below) and criteria for phasing in various efforts over time.
To be effective, this governance structure needs to be a committed partnership among the participating departments and agencies of the USGCRP, the relevant Administration offices (including, at a minimum the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Domestic Policy Council), the Global Change Research Sub-Committee representatives, and the USGCRP Office leadership. It is not clear that this sort of broad-based partnership currently exists.
On a related note, it would be useful for the Plan to mention something about mechanisms for interaction with Congress. This may include, for instance, describing how USGCRP committees, working groups, staff, etc. will help meet Congressional requests for briefings and updates on the Program; and discussing how the Program will seek opportunities for hearings, staff briefings, and other means to keep the Congress as fully informed as possible (as appropriate with respect to Administration policies).
Defining an appropriate, effective governance structure for the USGCRP is, of course, a complex challenge. The Committee itself does not necessarily have the expertise to offer specific
recommendations in this regard (especially in the context of this very quick review process), but we do suggest that this matter be given explicit consideration by an independent expert group.
Setting priorities. The Plan states commitments to many important new research directions – for instance, to improve understanding of how natural and social conditions interact to affect resilience and vulnerability; to develop methods for valuing ecosystem goods and services; to improve characterization of uncertainty in ways that enable decision makers to evaluate options. In fact, the Plan states directly that the USGCRP will pursue some important endeavor at least 177 times, not counting numerous additional commitments for action stated in textboxes throughout the document. Yet the Plan gives no clear indication of an approach to prioritizing these numerous commitments in a manner that will move beyond business-as-usual.
The Plan needs to identify what criteria and management structure will enable the Program to prioritize across existing and new research. The three criteria listed at L.3547 -3551 are too general to provide enough guidance to prioritize. (For instance, would such criteria help in choosing between an existing project on aerosol-cloud interactions versus a new activity that integrates social and natural science to support improved management of air quality and its linkages to global change?)
More specific criteria for prioritization, such as those discussed in ACC Advancing the Science report (NRC, 2010a; P.156-158) would be a step in the right direction. We particularly note that report’s emphasis on criteria related to the value of science for informing decision making. Consideration of decision makers’ needs might lead the Program to consider thematic approaches to defining research goals (i.e., science to address choices about providing clean water, sustaining marine ecosystems, providing better public health warnings, etc.).
Evaluation and updating. The Plan appropriately notes the value of using an adaptive management approach to evaluate progress and update the Plan based on input from those using research to inform decisions. However, it needs to be clearer about the specific questions the Program will address and expected outcomes and milestones against which it could be evaluated in the near-term (3-5 years). It should include specific mechanisms for periodic review and updating of the Plan in light of changes in international circumstances, technological developments, and budget appropriations, and in light of what is learned about what has and has not worked well within the Program’s operations. The Plan would also be strengthened by identifying steps to make the Program more resilient to the expected funding turbulence ahead. Ideally, there should also be consideration of plans for assessing the USGCRP itself – not of the science the Program produces, but of what has and has not worked well within the Program’s operations (including consideration of the governance questions mentioned above). This sort of assessment, which has not been done in the Program’s 20 year history, could help the USGCRP to establish priorities and implementation strategies.
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 Program 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 responsibility and resources to broaden the Program in the directions outlined in the Plan, including the ability to compel reallocation of funds to serve the Program’s overarching and long-term 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.