The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)2 is a collection of 13 Federal departments and agencies (Box 1) charged by law (the Global Change Research Act [GCRA] of 19903) to assist the Nation and the world to “understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” From its initiation, the USGCRP has understood this charge to include two primary functions. The first of these is to coordinate the research activities and research sponsorship of its member agencies, and the second is to assess the state of the science at four-year intervals.
USGCRP has guided its overall strategy for coordinating research by a series of strategic plans (USGCRP, 1990, 2003, 2008, 2012) and in the annual report Our Changing Planet (e.g., USGCRP, 2015). Through the 1990s, the main emphasis of the USGCRP was clearly on enhancing the underlying scientific foundation for understanding processes of global environmental change, a broad and varied suite of challenges which includes future climate change (see Box 2 for a description of global change research). The large investment in observing programs, a substantial investment in process-based research on the physical aspects of the climate system, and the emphasis on Earth system science as a framework for modeling all reflected the high priority given to increasing the fundamental understanding of Earth as a biophysical system.
BOX 1: Federal Entities that are Currently Members of USGCRP
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Department of Commerce (DOC)
Department of Defense (DoD)
Department of Energy (DOE)
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Department of the Interior (DOI)
Department of State (DOS)
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
National Science Foundation (NSF)
Smithsonian Institution (SI)
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
2 Also referred to as “the Program.”
BOX 2: Global Change Research
“Global change research” encompasses a broad suite of global environmental challenges. Human-induced climate change is a particularly large challenge within the broader list of global change issues, but it is not the only one. Quoting from a previous report (NRC, 2012): “The U.S. Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990, which established the Program, mandates a broad definition: ‘Global change’ means changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life. ‘Global change research’ means study, monitoring, assessment, prediction, and information management activities to describe and understand
- the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system;
- the unique environment that the Earth provides for life;
- changes that are occurring in the Earth system; and
- the manner in which such system, environment, and changes are influenced by human actions.”
This Committee has also stated (NRC, 2012): “Although the concept of global change is not precisely defined at the edges, and remains a matter of active debate, the GCRA clearly calls for a program that encompasses more than climate change alone.”
As the program has matured, there has been an important shift in the relative balance of its goals and objectives. The science of global change has demonstrated the importance of human choices in shaping the future of the planet and its constituent ecosystems, as well as in the options available to manage the consequences of global environmental change for human and natural systems. Moreover, rising awareness of a changing climate has led decision makers in both the private and public spheres to look to science for guidance in making choices about policies, actions, and funding. For both reasons, the Program has increasingly focused on use-inspired research that can inform decisions to cope with current climate variability and change, to reduce the magnitude of future changes, and to prepare for changes projected over coming decades. The most recent strategic plan (Box 3) demonstrates a continuing evolution that includes research meant to aid problem solving, as well as research intended to increase fundamental understanding of the processes of global environmental change.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Advisory Committee to the U.S. Global Change Research Program (the authoring committee of this report) has commented previously on the evolving role of the USGCRP:
From A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Strategic Plan (NRC, 2012): “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.”
BOX 3: USGCRP Strategic Plan
USGCRP is mandated by Congress to develop a new strategic plan every 10 years, with triennial revisions and updates. The most recent Strategic Plan, entitled National Global Change Research Plan 2012–2021: A Strategic Plan for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP, 2012), lays out a vision for the Program that “maintains a clear emphasis on advancing global change science, but it also calls for a strengthened focus on ensuring USGCRP science informs real-world decisions and actions.”a As described in the Strategic Plan, there are four strategic goals for the Program:
- Advance Science—Advance scientific knowledge of the integrated natural and human components of the Earth system to understand climate and global change.
- Inform Decisions—Provide the scientific basis to inform and enable timely decisions on adaptation and mitigation.
- Conduct Sustained Assessments—Build sustained assessment capacity that improves the Nation’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to global change impacts and vulnerabilities.
- Communicate and Educate—Advance communication and education to broaden public understanding of global change and develop the scientific workforce of the future.
The Strategic Plan was developed through an intensive interagency process involving a team of more than 100 Federal scientists in collaboration with USGCRP leadership and drawing on input from numerous stakeholder groups. The final document was revised in response to reviews by USGCRP and the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRSb) member agencies, comments from the public, and a review by the Advisory Committee that is also writing this document (NRC, 2012).
“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.”
“… 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….”
From A Review of the Draft 2013 National Climate Assessment (NRC, 2013a): “An assessment of this broader range of questions would, of course, require a broader foundation of research findings to draw upon, and thus it would be necessary to explore how this broader range of issues could be addressed, either within the scope of the USGCRP’s research program or elsewhere. It might, for instance,
require expanded involvement of programmatic agencies not typically involved with the USGCRP (e.g., the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, Navy Facilities Engineering Command, Federal Highway Administration) to conduct pilot projects for mitigation and adaptation….”
In summary, the Committee sees the expanding role of USGCRP to support decisions as a necessary evolution, but one that comes with challenges from constrained budgets and maintaining clearly defined boundaries.
Along with these strategic and funding challenges, there is a significant institutional challenge in how the “membership” of the USGCRP might best reflect the evolution of its research strategy within the mandate of the law. Thirteen federal departments and agencies (Box 1) are formal members of USGCRP. Other agencies may participate in the USGCRP with appropriate formal arrangements, such as memoranda of understanding or an invitation to a particular staff person or component to participate in a meeting. There is no legal limitation on the participation of agencies in the USGCRP, so the rationale for determining membership is derived from what is in the best interest of the nation as articulated in the original mandate in the GCRA and the subsequent Strategic Plans. USGCRP has had successes in helping coordinate research across agencies, but it is the Committee’s assessment that the member agencies form an incomplete patchwork of what is needed to help the Nation prepare for, respond to, cope with, and recover from global change. Overall, the current breadth and depth of research in these agencies is insufficient to meet the Nation’s needs, particularly to support decision makers. Addressing these challenges to produce actionable scientific knowledge and better serve the Nation raises important questions about how that might best be done and which agencies should be represented.
In light of these issues, and under the guidance of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Committee undertook writing this brief report to explore mechanisms and opportunities for enhancing participation in USGCRP’s evolving scope of activities. The Committee’s statement of task (see Appendix A) did not stipulate a comprehensive survey of the capabilities in federal agencies and other partners that should either use or contribute global change research in the pursuit of their missions. Rather, the Committee’s task was to explore the current set of USGCRP capabilities in comparison to goals and objectives in the Program’s Strategic Plan and to identify example gaps and areas of potential adjustments that can provide guidelines for the Program as it moves forward.
Although the Committee’s task initially focused on participation of federal agencies in the Program, the objectives specified in the Strategic Plan imply a need for participation beyond the federal government. To build a science base that integrates the natural and human components of the Earth system—which is useful for informing decisions, building a sustained assessment capacity, and broadening public understanding of global change—the Program requires integration of the perspectives of entities outside the federal government, particularly those responsible for making decisions about global change.
Global change will increase risks to society in a number of sectors—energy, agriculture, health, etc.—and efforts to respond effectively to those risks would benefit from collaboration among those who have extensive expertise in global change, those who have deep scientific expertise in the nature of the risk, and those who have “on the ground” experience developing programs to respond to risk.
It is of course the case that federal agencies participating in the USGCRP already engage with non-federal users of federally sponsored research, in some cases extensively. For example, in the National Climate Assessment (NCA) completed in 2014, non-federal partners helped shape the process from the beginning. In many other domains as well, the Program can meet its goals far better by engaging with a variety of non-federal entities, including state and local governments, international programs and foreign governments, business and community groups, professional societies, mass media entities, educational institutions, and other entities engaged in making or informing global change decisions. Although these entities will not be involved in budgetary decisions, their input needs to be included in setting program priorities. The sustained assessment process provides a particularly important venue for such partnership because a major goal of the assessment process is to inform non-federal decision makers.
Specific recommendations on which partners are most appropriate in which contexts and on how best to engage them with the Program are beyond the scope of this report. However, the issue has been addressed in part in previous reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (e.g., NRC, 2008, 2009a). As recommended in those previous reports, the appropriate non-federal partners to be approached depend on the task or activity and should therefore be chosen to suit the activity. The Committee emphasizes that one of the tasks of Program leadership and of the various Program elements, as a broadened Program scope is being defined and implemented, will be to identify and engage the appropriate non-federal partners suited for each specific activity.