The Update to the Strategic Plan (USP) is a supplement to the Ten-Year Strategic Plan of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) completed in 2012 (USGCRP, 2012). The Strategic Plan sets out a research program guiding thirteen federal agencies in accord with the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990. This Committee reviewed the Strategic Plan in 2012, and we have followed the progress of the Program in the intervening years.
The Committee was asked to review the draft USP document, examining both its content and clarity. The Committee’s statement of task for this report is included in Appendix A, its overall charge to advise the USGCRP is in Appendix B, and the Committee membership is included in Appendix C. This report addresses whether USGCRP’s efforts to achieve its goals and objectives, as documented in the USP, are adequate and responsive to the Nation’s needs, whether the priorities for continued or increased emphasis are appropriate, and if the written document communicates effectively, all within a context of the Committee’s broader knowledge of the history and trajectory of the Program.
Overall, the Committee believes the Program is moving forward well and has made important contributions to the Nation. The USGCRP deserves credit for identifying many increasingly pressing scientific needs and for proposing to address them.1 Historically, the USGCRP has concentrated on the physical sciences of climate dynamics. The Earth system is complex, and the draft USP rightly recognizes the need for better understanding of its driving forces as they operate over many different time scales and geographic spans. Understanding of the changing Earth system has increased dramatically in the quarter century since the GCRA was enacted, and discoveries are still improving our understanding in significant ways––for example, in illuminating the connection between severe weather events and climate change. The USGCRP has contributed significantly both to advancing knowledge in these areas and conveying that knowledge to the research community, decision makers, and the public through its National Climate Assessments. The USGCRP also has correctly identified that the complexity of the Earth system lies in part in the interactions between ecosystems, society, and the physical system, and has begun to make some progress in integrating models that account for ecological processes and social dynamics, although this work is less mature than physical models. The Program should be commended for its efforts and successes and for its plans regarding a continuation of those efforts going forward, as articulated in the draft USP.
Nonetheless, the Committee sees in the draft USP evidence of increasing tension between the need for additional work in the areas traditionally the focus of the USGCRP
1 The draft USP appears to have been written so that parts of it could be read by particular audiences without reading the whole. This is a sensible expository strategy but it needs to be explained, and guidance provided, so that an unwary reader need not wade through the repetitions found in the draft USP. That repetitiveness highlights the bureaucratic writing style of the draft; the document would benefit if this characteristic were minimized in the final version.
and a broadening range of scientific questions needed to advance the Nation’s understanding of and ability to address and respond to global change. For example, experiences with climate-related events, many of them anticipated by the climate science, have precipitated a rise in demand for climate science and the communication of that science, as the report acknowledges. They also have brought additional scientific questions to the fore that have not previously been central to the USGCRP’s research portfolio and that also deserve attention. These include questions about the costs and benefits of various mitigation and adaptation options and how best to achieve their objectives; about the feasibility, costs, and benefits of options for climate intervention; about multiple stresses climate change puts on ecological and socioeconomic systems and how they may respond in surprising ways owing to complex feedbacks, tipping points, and nonlinearities; about ways to better inform decision making in the face of climate change and uncertainties about its specific future consequences; and about the processes of decision support and what makes some decision support tools and approaches more effective. Many of these are the broad purview of the social sciences, but beyond calling for “effective engagement of social scientists” (draft USP, p 13, line 17), there are few specific details on how the Program intends to address these new questions.
A number of these needs have been identified in the draft USP, and its authors deserve credit for this. However, the Committee observes that, although some of these needs have been identified not only in the draft USP but also in previous strategic planning documents, the draft USP provides little direction or information regarding how the Program intends to address these needs over the coming years beyond the creation of a Social Science Coordinating Committee. Nor does the draft USP describe how these needs have changed since the Strategic Plan was adopted in 2012. In that document, the two competing priorities—the Program’s traditional research and emerging scientific needs—were described:
“To serve society in meeting present and future challenges, this research program will be built on two principles. The first is to improve fundamental scientific understanding of the integrated natural and human components of the Earth system. The second principle is to focus on the essential science needs for reducing ecological and societal vulnerability to global change by increasing resilience and helping the Nation manage risk through well-informed responses.”
The increasing tension between the Program’s traditional research priorities (e.g., the physical science of climate change) and emerging scientific needs requires more explicit attention in the strategic planning process.
Thus, although the Committee commends the USGCRP for putting together a draft USP that identifies a number of critical research questions and the call for efforts to address an expanding set of needs, the Committee also believes that the draft Update does not yet fulfill its purpose. More is needed to provide the Program with a strategic document that can guide its evolution, ensuring it is as responsive as possible to the expanding and evolving needs of the Nation. In particular, the Committee has identified
five broad, inter-related areas where it feels the USP needs to be strengthened to meet this goal:
- Greater recognition of the role of the USGCRP as a “boundary” organization connecting the science community and a spectrum of audiences, and the implications of this role for the development and design of its workplan;
- A clearer articulation of USGCRP’s recent research accomplishments with a balance between discovery-based research (driven by questions identified by the scientific community) and use-inspired research (driven by questions identified by stakeholder and user groups);
- More robust and transparent engagement of the science and user communities in the process of reviewing progress and selecting program priorities and an analysis of what is being revealed about user needs through previous engagement activities;
- A clearer statement of current priorities within given areas of research and the rationales for those priorities that reflects both the near-term payoffs of new initiatives and the value accruing from long-term research efforts already in progress; and
- A review of research to enhance our understanding of human behaviors and institutions that contribute to global change, as well as those that determine or affect responses to that change (including both mitigation and adaptation responses).
These five themes recur throughout this report, and they are described and discussed in more detail below in Chapter 2. In addition, the Committee has more specific comments on the individual components of the draft USP, as reflected in the individual goals and objectives, which are provided in Chapters 3 and 4 of this report. Chapter 5 provides some concluding comments. Editorial and other more detailed Committee comments are included in Appendix D.
Throughout, the Committee takes care not to supplant the judgment of the USGCRP’s leaders with its own view of priorities, but rather to indicate where priorities are not clearly articulated and grounded in an understanding of evolving needs and opportunities and with the directions set forth in the 2012 Strategic Plan.
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