The report reviews the draft Update to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s (USGCRP) 2012 Strategic Plan. The Strategic plan sets out a long-term vision for the research program to guide the Program’s thirteen federal departments and agencies in meeting the mandate of the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990. The Update (USP) provides a more detailed view of priorities and strategies for the next three years, and is part of a family of documents that also includes the annual report Our Changing Planet, which describes annual priorities included as part of the President’s budget request. The Committee was tasked with formally reviewing the USP (see the Statement of Task in Appendix A), drawing on its prior review of the draft Strategic Plan in 2012 and its ongoing attention to the progress of the Program in the intervening years (see the Committee’s charge in Appendix B).
Overall, the Committee believes the Program is moving forward well and has accomplished many things. The Committee commends the USGCRP for putting together a draft USP that identifies a number of critical research questions and describes a set of strategies and programs to address an expanding set of national information needs. The Committee notes that the demand for science-based information on global change is likely to increase as the effects of global change are experienced in more sectors and systems across the United States, and as a growing number and diversity of decision makers confront the need to consider global change in investments, community planning, and other routine decisions. The draft USP identifies many increasingly pressing scientific needs and proposes to address them.
However, the Committee believes that the draft Update does not yet outline priorities and a strategy that will identify and meet information needs that are particularly urgent and for which the scientific opportunities are greatest. This is essential, given that it is not possible for the Program to respond to all of the demands it is likely to face in the coming three to five years. In particular, the Committee has identified five broad, interrelated areas where it feels the USP needs to be strengthened to meet this goal. These, and associated recommendations, are briefly described in the remainder of this summary.
1. Boundary spanning and interacting with stakeholders: The Strategic Plan and USP describe commitments to advance science that is use-inspired as well as fundamental (Goal 1) and to provide information that can be used to inform decisions, conduct assessments, and support education and training (Goals 2-4).1 This requires sustaining two-way communication about what constitutes useful and scientifically valid knowledge across the boundary that separates users of scientific information from those who produce it. Sustaining interactions with stakeholders at the boundary of use and science is a challenge, particularly for an entity such as the USGCRP, which is itself a collection of agencies and departments responding to their own stakeholders and mandates. Learning
from ongoing interactions with stakeholders to update the Strategic Plan thus requires a concerted effort.
Recommendation 1: The USP should build upon insights derived from the interaction between researchers and users, to articulate a coherent program of research investments that will advance understanding and inform decision-making, as well as facilitate assessments salient to audiences beyond the federal government.
Nurturing this boundary role, particularly through the sustained assessment process, has the benefits of facilitating science translation at scales at which actions are taken and encouraging an expanding set of partners to assume an increasingly active role in applying USGCRP-produced data, models, decision-support tools, and other products.
Recommendation 8:2 The Committee recommends that the USP discussion of Goal 3 (sustained assessments) more clearly articulate the Program’s efforts to sustain relationships with user communities, provide a wider range of products or services, and develop the scientific foundations for assessment.
2. Articulation of Research Accomplishments: From its earliest days, USGCRP has undertaken use-inspired and discovery-driven research. Both are critical because of the complexity of the Earth system and the societal choices that drive climate change and provide the context for responses. The structure of the USP could be improved to underscore not just the activities, but also the high-level use- and discovery-driven accomplishments of the 2012-2015 period under each of the objectives.
Recommendation 2: The USP should articulate more clearly the USGCRP’s recent research accomplishments, as well as the impacts of earlier discoveries, in addition to describing its activities. Balancing discussion of accomplishments across research areas including interdisciplinary and social science research would be useful in establishing the value of the Strategic Plan’s arguments in support of each of these lines of research.
3. Learning from Engagement and Selecting Priorities: The Program has made great strides through the National Climate Assessment (NCA) and other activities in strengthening interactions with stakeholder groups, including both the research and user communities. This is a valuable opportunity for organizational learning about societal needs that can then help to inform prioritization (along with evaluation of other criteria, such as scientific opportunity).
Recommendation 3: The USP should describe and incorporate a higher level of interaction with the research community in the process for planning and updating the Strategic Plan.
Recommendation 4: The USP should include an analysis of what is being revealed about user needs through the activities used to interact with stakeholders; this includes the recently-completed Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3), related activities such as NCANet, and interactions of the Program with user and producer communities through the Interagency Working Groups or professional societies. This analysis of societal needs should inform prioritization of specific scientific initiatives, which is the essence of use-inspired science as specified in the USP’s current emphasis on “joint production of actionable science.”
4. Articulation of Priorities and Rationales: While the draft USP provides interesting and useful information on the intent of the various goals of the Strategic Plan, the Committee found it difficult to understand how the Program is refining its objectives and approach for the coming three years. The Committee suggests that a small set of priority areas should be identified and systematically discussed in a consistent fashion throughout the document. Use of a common template that includes descriptions of the societal needs and science questions, recent progress specific to the priority, near-term targets/products, resources required, and collaborations needed for progress (with federal and other domestic institutions, as well as international programs and entities) would help readers understand the benefits and resources required for each priority.
Recommendation 5: The USP should present a clear set of priorities that respond to both societal needs and scientific opportunity for discovery.
Recommendation 6: The descriptions of priorities in the USP should reflect both the near-term payoffs of new initiatives and the value accruing from long-term research efforts already in progress.
5. Human Behaviors and Global Change: The draft USP includes a laudable commitment to fuller integration of social science research into both its fundamental science (understanding interactions of Earth and human systems) and decision-facing components (information for decisions, assessments, and education/training). The adoption of integrated social-natural science approaches in Goal 1 and the effective use of social science knowledge in Goals 2-4 have been recurring challenges for the Program for some time, and the USP continues to lack specifics about how social science research will be integrated into the four goals. Several elements of progress are described (e.g., formation of a Social Science Coordinating Committee [SSCC]), but the USP should build on ongoing progress in the research community regarding specific approaches to the integration of social science to achieve priority research and decision support/assessment/education objectives.
Recommendation 7: The USGCRP would benefit from and should undertake a detailed review of advances in the integration of social science into research pertinent to anthropogenic forcing, vulnerability, and capacities for response to global change (e.g., adaptation, mitigation).
Additional major comments: Chapter 3 of this review offers comments on a wide range of issues raised by the draft USP including its discussions of observations, modeling, and information management. The Committee also comments on the role of the Program in a possible initiative on climate intervention and in research needs in light of the 2015 agreement of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris.3
Chapter 4 comments on the Strategic Plan’s Goals 2 (Inform Decisions), 3 (Conduct Sustained Assessments), and 4 (Communicate & Educate). The Committee agrees with the draft USP’s grouping of Goals 2, 3, and 4, and suggests that the common theme in these goals is the boundary-spanning responsibility that the USGCRP is already undertaking. Social science research on boundary spanning, boundary organizations, and the networks they facilitate or organize, as well as mechanisms that promote adaptive learning to improve interactions between the research community and the wide range of user communities is also discussed. In addition in Chapter 4, the Committee also comments on the sustained assessment process, indicators, regional climate centers, and international research collaborations.
3 The Committee notes that USP was released before the UNFCCC agreement in Paris.