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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
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Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope

As the draft USP is an update to the ten-year 2012 plan, a reasonable expectation is that it will include updates on accomplishments, sharpened questions, greater specificity about deliverables and time lines, and more clarity on resources required for producing these deliverables. While the draft Update provides interesting and useful information on the intent of the various goals, the Committee found it difficult to understand what the Program uses as metrics of progress and hence how it documents tangible progress, as well as how the Program is refining its specific objectives and approach to each of the challenges it addresses.

In this chapter we begin with recommendations for clarifying the discussion of the objectives and specific topics that the draft USP describes as priorities. In the sections that follow, the Committee offers comments on some of the major issues brought up in Chapter III of the draft USP, following the structure of the draft. This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the draft; the Committee did not have the time to include all of the expertise needed to do that. In addition, for the reasons presented earlier in this report, we believe the Program leadership should reconsider which priority topics it is in fact pursuing in the Update to the Strategic Plan.

3.1 TEMPLATE FOR CONSISTENT PRESENTATION OF TARGETED RESEARCH CHALLENGES AND TOPICS

The draft USP uses a reasonable framework to stage its discussion of each high-level objective. This includes sections on “Maintaining Directions,” “Building on Progress,” and “Navigating Challenges.” While this framework is logical, it is not effective in practice because it is not implemented consistently and it does not supply enough detail with respect to accomplishments and refinements to the plan. It therefore inadequately informs discussion at the level of the specific goals or priorities presented below each of the main objectives. For example, the “Building on Progress” sections are not standardized and do not indicate what progress is being made in addressing the issues raised. We offer several suggestions. The Committee believes that the sections on “Maintaining Directions” should restate the 2012 Plan’s objectives and describe how the objectives are evolving in response to changing needs and scientific opportunities. Perhaps a better title such as “Strategic Directions and Learning from Experience” would reflect both continuity and change in objectives. The Committee feels that sections titled “Building on Progress” should showcase examples of how the Program is making progress by documenting specific accomplishments. It is in these sections that specific topics such as tipping points/thresholds, climate variability, attribution, etc. are introduced in the draft. The text in these sections provides useful information about the intent and general area of research, but discussion of progress is often not specific enough to enable the reader to understand why scientific progress or changes in circumstances have led the Program to

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
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shift research emphasis in response to the progress made since 2012. In addition, the discussion of next steps and future objectives is very general and lacks specific deliverables, timetables, or resource requirements (e.g., technical inputs). The “Navigating Challenges” sections provide interesting discussion of general issues that cut across the specific topics listed but do not provide a satisfactory evaluation of challenges to progress. More specifics are provided below.

Even for the high-level numbered objectives, it is not possible to get a useful sense of progress or new goals. It is important to identify significant accomplishments since the Strategic Plan was completed in 2012, describing the context of these achievements so that non-specialist readers can appreciate what has been done. For instance, on p. 23 multi-agency field campaigns are discussed, but there is no description of a particular campaign to illustrate what such a project can contribute and how it should be analyzed within a context of continuous observations and monitoring. The Committee is not asking that each example in Chapter III be fully developed; rather, the USP could use specific illustrations to bring out the meaning of “maintaining directions,” “building on progress,” and “navigating challenges.”

In discussing how the Program will invest in the next several years, few specific metrics are offered. Where appropriate, metrics may be available for funding that lies within a single member agency of the USGCRP, and including these in the text would strengthen the USP document considerably. In many important cases, however, it is the interagency synergy brought by the Program that should be the focus of progress going forward. In the areas spotlighted on p. 49, it may be possible to identify metrics already. This might take the form of specific tasks that are planned to be accomplished within the next few years. The Committee is looking forward to working with the Program on the question of metrics in a separate study, which is now being organized. Here, we note that the NRC’s report Thinking Strategically (NRC, 2005) contains practical advice on principles and challenges associated with developing and using metrics to chart progress in global change research.

As discussed in Section 2.4, for each research priority (including carbon cycle, water cycle, predictions, rapid Arctic change, etc.), the Committee recommends that the USP:

  • describe the societal needs and/or scientific research questions addressed;
  • provide a brief, high-level overview of the current state of knowledge, including major advancements produced by the Program that are related to each topic;
  • outline benefits from the proposed research including specific products (e.g., data sets, model studies, publications, assessments/reports, maps, decision support tools) to be achieved in the near and long term;
  • identify needed technical assets (data sets, analytical tools, field campaigns, models); and
  • offer a listing of key collaborations with other national and international programs that will help to support its research agenda.
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
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In Chapter 2 the Committee has discussed the identification of these priority areas in the draft USP. We propose that a small set of research challenges or topics should be identified and discussed, using the template above to enable readers to understand the societal needs/science questions, advancements, benefits/ deliverables, and the inputs/collaborations that are needed. These could evolve from USP to USP depending on emerging societal need and scientific opportunity and would call out priorities from among the ongoing research of the Program. The Committee realizes this will require significant effort and that therefore the USP may need to highlight a smaller number of priority topics for attention during the next phase of the Program. The Committee understands this to mean that other areas of ongoing research will continue as well, but not with the same level of attention to developing an integrated program linking societal needs/science questions, outputs, and required resources. Establishing this framework now will facilitate improved setting of objectives and tracking of progress in the future.

The comments below follow the structure of the draft for Goal 1. This is not a comprehensive review of the draft USP discussion but instead provides high-level comments in the areas that the committee felt were most important. More detailed (but more narrowly focused) line-by-line comments are included in Appendix D.

3.2 EARTH SYSTEM UNDERSTANDING (OBJECTIVE 1.1)

The draft USP highlights topics that seem to deserve greater investment in the next several years. In this section, the Committee examines the specific topics discussed in the draft USP; in subsequent sections the Committee comments more holistically on how each Objective is discussed in the draft USP.

Tipping points and thresholds: This section of the draft USP discusses new data sets related to climate thresholds that are available over “unprecedented temporal and spatial scales … utilized with more sophisticated modeling and theoretical understanding … providing improved insight into prediction and uncertainty analyses” (p. 14). No specifics are provided with respect to these accomplishments. Tipping points may be “surprises” in the Earth system response, but determining tipping points requires more than process research and experimentation. The potential for complex feedbacks is mentioned as a source of uncertainty for climate scenarios, but no specific research questions, deliverables, or research needs are discussed. Without some specificity, it is not possible to understand the work to be done under this heading. Two potentially illustrative examples are the idea of Arctic amplification of global climate warming and the teleconnections leading to long-lived weather patterns associated with the polar vortex (Francis and Vavrus, 2012, 2015). More problematic is that the text refers only to physical climate tipping points. Some of these are obviously important, e.g., understanding when grounded ice sheets have reached a point at which their collapse cannot be halted. But there is no mention of the problem of understanding threshold and tipping point responses in the wide variety of impact sectors of concern, and indeed in adaptation response strategies themselves. The polar vortex example again would provide an excellent vehicle

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

for such articulation of societal impacts. Additionally, there is now very limited understanding of the limits of adaptive capacity. The need to develop alternative adaptations is itself a type of threshold response.

Using Long Data Records to Understand Earth’s Climate Variability: The focus of this area appears to be reanalysis and synthesis of instrumental and paleoclimate data to understand past climate variability. This has been an objective of the Program for over 20 years. The text nicely describes the character of the data sets and how they can be used to constrain variability in key features of the global climate, as well as challenges associated with developing related data free of biases. Reference is made to the importance of these data for attribution (the next topic). But it is surprising that recent specific accomplishments are not described, nor are any specific outputs or deliverables mentioned. What have we learned in this area of research that enables us to better understand how current climate is extending beyond past variability? What are the implications for our understanding of the evolution of some of the key climate features mentioned? How have those accomplishments informed next steps in the research portfolio?

In this context, examples could be identified that capitalize the Nation’s investments in such long-term data sets, which are then used to empower new research. One prime example is the USGS archival stream gage time series with 850,000 station-years of data and real-time stream gage networks (~10,000 stations), as well as computational platforms for creating a broad suite of value-added research products (e.g., climate trend analysis, attribution studies of hydrologic response to land cover change) or user products (e.g., drought or flood alerts) (Castronova et al., 2013; Tarboton et al., 2011).

Attribution: The topic is well defined, but always presents a challenge to discuss. One issue with the discussion of this topic in the draft USP is that there is no sense of what the Program has learned about how to attribute natural or human influences on events such as the recent floods and heat waves mentioned. What specific products could be expected to result from this research, and what sorts of decisions might they be used to inform? When might these products be available, assuming availability of needed observations, modeling, or budgets? A brief discussion of the overall approaches (e.g., inductive versus deductive approaches), if not specific numerical techniques used to isolate human from natural variability and forcing, seems prudent for the USP to offer.

The Global Warming “Hiatus”: This is “another timely, priority question” (p. 15) that has already spurred numerous USGCRP supported studies, mostly under the scientifically more precise label of inter-annual climate variability. The Committee agrees that research has not yet resolved the issue (e.g., Rajaratnam et al., 2015) and thus could constitute an excellent example of how the agencies could achieve focus and coherency of purpose on a major Earth system question. However, the write-up should summarize key relevant studies and discuss how the similarities and differences of their results have changed the nature of the questions or approaches used. The discussion could also include more on

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

the interplay of decadal oscillation, deep ocean warming, and wind patterns. Next steps in this area are relatively clearly articulated, but it seems to the Committee that it would be possible to identify some specific deliverables and ideas about what can be accomplished in the next 3-5 years given required resources. The Committee notes that another example to consider is research on the polar vortex––where a targeted challenge might be articulated, with results that could be anticipated within the remainder of the current Strategic Plan.

Rapid Arctic Change: This topic focuses on impacts of climate change in the Arctic, as well as the effects of Arctic change on the broader Earth system, including various extreme weather events. A number of specific topics are listed for emphasis related to permafrost, sea and land ice, interactions with nutrient cycles, etc. This discussion misses the importance of ocean-ice dynamics in glacier melt—a critical process that has not been incorporated into system models. Further, the text does not discuss any specific insights that have emerged from recent research, nor are any specific objectives stated. Usefully, the section mentions cooperation with a number of national and international programs and the opportunity presented by the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Being more specific about the nature of these collaborations would bring out the ways in which they enable the USGCRP to leverage its own resources to advance the science.

Carbon Cycle and Ecological Modeling: This section contains an interesting discussion of integrated research to better understand the implications of human and natural factors on the carbon cycle, including such factors as emissions from energy used in water resources management. The carbon cycle portion of the write-up would be even stronger if it presented a few specific findings, for example, what has been learned about the relative contribution of urban areas to the regional carbon cycle, and how these advances are being made: Do they primarily stem from observations, inventory methods looking at energy and materials flows in/out of cities, or other approaches? Members of the Committee are aware that an update to the State of the Carbon Cycle Report is being developed. This would be an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between information needs and the science being conducted by the Program.

The ecological modeling discussion also needs additional specificity. How have recent advances improved understanding of rates of biodiversity loss or changes in genetic diversity? There is also a lack of discussion of ocean acidification and of bio-physical marine environments, especially the ocean rainforest-coral reef systems. Improved assessments of regional to local impacts are suggested as a result of development of improved sensors and testable ecological forecasts. What scientific or practical questions or problems will these improved assessments support?

Water Cycle Research: The discussion in the draft USP of water systems must necessarily provide by a broad overview, yet the report here is too synoptic and misses important points. The report highlights the issue of “wet and dry extremes,” with specific mention of drought, but curiously not of flooding. Mention should be made of the readiness of the USGCRP research agenda to translate research findings into the domain of water

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

infrastructure and water resource management through improvements in climate extremes and linked hydrologic system understanding, which to date is regarded as severely limited (NRC, 2011). The text discusses exclusively the issue of how climate change accentuates water cycle extremes, with no mention of other important human factors that dictate the nature of hydrologic extremes, for example, land use change or water management. In addition, there is no treatment of the issue of water pollution, which itself creates water scarcity from the standpoint of its usability. The USP should also discuss the observational underpinnings of water cycle studies, for example, the conjunctive use of satellite and in situ measurement (Famiglietti et al., 2015; Fekete et al., 2015).

Navigating challenges: This section raises two challenges, the first related to incorporating human dimensions research, and the second related to the surge in demand for high resolution climate data. The discussion of social sciences seems oddly placed, as the rest of Objective 1.1 is couched in natural science terms. A discussion of the role of social science in Objective 1.1 can of course grow out of the need to understand the links tying biophysical system behavior to human drivers or impacts, or to the need for social science in the development of decision support systems.

The demand for high-resolution data is important, and in other sections (e.g., Objective 1.2, “Models for Decision Making”), it is treated as a research topic in its own right. Certainly responding to requests for this information is a challenge, but at some place in the document, there needs to be a strategy for addressing it. For example, work at the regional climate centers suggests that for many requests for high-resolution data, the underlying decision would be better supported with other types of information. In order to understand potential changes in frequency of different types of extreme events, it may be more helpful to study the frequency of synoptic weather patterns associated with the extremes. A coherent response would involve research to better understand and catalogue needs and appropriate approaches for meeting them, as well as increasing provision of downscaling per se. Needs could be better addressed not only as modeling, but by tailoring climate information for use in impacts, adaptation, and mitigation research and decision making. Downscaling and modeling are only one part of the science needed for decision support. Because this issue is also relevant to Objective 1.2 and Goals 2-3, the USP might usefully consolidate the discussions that occur in these different sections into strategy to advance the science and meet user needs in one section, and then cross reference this discussion as needed.

3.3 SCIENCE FOR ADAPTATION AND MITIGATION (OBJECTIVE 1.2)

The draft USP begins its exposition of Objective 1.2 with a statement that its research should, in principle, cover a “continuum from its basic climate science, through climate impacts and vulnerabilities, to translation and provision of this information and knowledge needed to inform responses to climate change, such as adaptation and mitigation” (p. 18). The recent climate agreement in Paris has advanced the global consensus regarding climate change, with substantial implications for Objective 1.2.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

Impacts and vulnerability have been a minor focus of the USGCRP to date. With the COP-21 accord, the commitment by individual countries to specific targets for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions opens lines of research needed to help the United States and other countries meet their commitments. The five-year pledge and review cycle presents an opportunity for adaptive management, but it is unclear exactly what the base of scientific knowledge would need to be to support that process. In revising its draft and finalizing the USP, the USGCRP should be responsive to this need by increasing and broadening its plans for mitigation and adaptation-related research and decision support. In particular, there is a need to move from a mindset of “respond/adapt” to a more integrated “prevent/respond” mindset that recognizes the interactions among mitigation, adaptation, and impacts.

To date, the USGCRP, through Objective 1.2 of the draft USP that is focused on “Science for Adaptation and Mitigation,” has devoted some effort to “advanc[ing] understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of integrated human-natural systems” (p. 12). The USGCRP has primarily focused on the evaluation of the impacts of climate change, and not on use-inspired research to inform mitigation decisions. While the existing portfolio of research is critical, it does not address the salient questions related to climate resilient pathways that combine both adaptation and mitigation actions. It may be time for the Program to broaden its science base to address climate-resilient pathways (including both adaptation and mitigation)––that is, how the Nation can best meet its mitigation targets while adapting to a changing climate. There is ongoing work to assess the best strategies for transferring the products of basic research into use-inspired applications (e.g., Allen et al., 2013; Bidwell et al., 2013; Rosenzweig et al., 2014).

An approach suited to the international setting now requires not only research on the benefits of mitigation, but also research (including social science) related to how mitigation targets can be achieved and at what cost (including comparisons with the costs of doing nothing). The Committee recognizes that the development of engineering technologies or approaches to reducing or capturing carbon emissions is conducted by various federal agencies and is outside the scope of the USGCRP. However, engineers often design the built environment and associated risk management systems, and there is an opportunity to more fully engage with the physical and engineering sciences communities as part of use-inspired research. For example, the USGCRP can use the results of the work by the agencies who do work on the development of engineering technologies to examine the set of mitigation options that are technologically feasible and to conduct research related to possible adoption of various alternatives. This could include research on costs of adoption, policy instruments to promote adoption (for example, carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, more stringent energy efficiency standards), barriers to adoption (including economic, social, and political barriers), and the relevant risks and tradeoffs involved. The current draft USP lacks any explicit plans for conducting or facilitating these types of research.

In addition, mitigation-related research and decision support requires better understanding of the drivers of future emissions, including economic and demographic forces (and the associated impacts on land use change). Developing effective strategies for limiting the magnitude of climate change and adapting to it requires an understanding of

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

likely trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions, and those trajectories are in turn dependent on the scale, content, and techniques of production used to support consumption, which are in turn influenced by individual and organizational decisions and by institutions. Understanding the complex dynamics that shape these trajectories gives a better sense of possible future emissions. Such understanding also can identify potential leverage points for mitigation.

A substantial and sophisticated literature has emerged to assess the relative importance of various driving forces at the level of nations. In parallel, a literature has developed around household decision making about energy, including the adoption of new technologies. This existing body of work provides a starting place for a more sophisticated assessment of the trajectory of emissions and albedo change, and can help identify non-linearities and potential surprises. Simple models, such as the Kaya identity (a CO2-oriented statement of the IPAT identity that posits environmental (I)mpact is a function of (A)ffluence, (P)opulation, and (T)echnology), that assume direct proportionality between changes in drivers and stress on the environment cannot capture these dynamics. Thus research on drivers at levels ranging from the household to the nation is useful in evaluating the impact of existing trends, such as urbanization or shifts in consumption patterns. They can also underpin policies intended to reduce anthropogenic forcings. For example, recent research suggests that increases in renewable energy portfolios only partially displace conventional sources. A solid understanding of the degree of displacement is essential to understanding the impacts of policies to promote renewables. At the household level, a great deal has been learned about what factors influence energy decision making and how to design policies and programs that will be effective in shifting consumer energy demand. In the context of mitigation, cross-sectoral opportunities should more completely be identified, for example, how the costs of energy-for-water (e.g., pumping for a variety of applications) could be offset by water-for-energy (e.g., hydroelectricity production).

Greater understanding of adaptation is also needed. For example, the interplay of climate and development choices will be key determinants of the magnitude and pattern of future vulnerabilities and the resilience of communities to prepare for and manage risks. Therefore, it is critical for research to explore the range of future vulnerabilities, as described, for example, in the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (O’Neill et al., 2014). In most cases, uncertainties in climate science are small compared with uncertainties about how future societies will evolve, what technologies will be available, what regulations will be promulgated, and other factors. Better understanding of the range of possible vulnerabilities can inform not just adaptation decisions, but the broader range of decisions that will be taken by communities and states; many of these decisions may be made with little attention to the implications of a non-stationary climate, but they will affect how vulnerability will evolve over coming decades.

In addition, the information needed for adaptation will vary across sectors and across regions. The USGCRP is moving to be more effective at providing that information, and several agencies have developed regional centers to help make global change research more useful (see Box 4.1). However, because of the diversity of demands for information that is context specific and decision relevant, it is inevitable that adaptation

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

will require social learning about networks (Frank et al., 2012; Henry and Vollan, 2014). Thus an important topic for further research is the way in which information relevant to adaptation flows on networks, how networks re-form as a result, and how trust in information is accrued or lost.

Finally, research related to mitigation and adaptation needs to recognize and account for the interactions among mitigation, adaptation, and impacts and the associated tradeoffs among these three. Accordingly, it could be useful to reframe the USGCRP’s work on mitigation and adaptation using the Paris commitments or the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which represent alternative future scenarios regarding greenhouse gas emissions and resulting atmospheric concentrations (Moss et al., 2010). For example, for various targets or RCPs, the USGCRP could ask, “What will likely be the level of mitigation needed, how can that level be accomplished (including the specific policies or regulations that could be used), what does the target imply for adaptation (over temporal and spatial scales, and across sectors), and what are likely to be the residual impacts?” The amount of adaptation needed and the residual impacts with which the Nation will need to cope differ across different emissions scenarios. The results of this work could then be used, for example, to provide guidance to public agencies on setting mitigation and adaptation targets (including the five-year cycle of INDC commitments under the Paris agreement) and designing and evaluating the impacts of policies and programs. Clearly, this necessitates research from not only the biophysical sciences but also the social sciences, including behavioral and economic.

In its current form, the discussion of the draft USP related to Objective 1.2 lacks the broader, integrated approach discussed above, as well as details on specific research plans, and information about how priorities within this Objective were set, what they mean in concrete terms over the remainder of the Strategic Plan, and how they relate to the priorities under Objective 1.1.

The priorities that are included under Objective 1.2 are: (1) Models for Decision Making, (2) Resilience and Vulnerability Research, (3) Translational Research to Inform Adaptation and Mitigation Decisions, (4) Urban Opportunities for Adaptation and Mitigation, (5) Carbon Cycle Research, and (6) Methane Research. These priorities are within Objective 1 (Advance Science). As described in Section 3.1, for each priority issue the USP should cover several specific points (see list on p. 26 of this report. Instead, the draft USP provides general and often rather vague discussions of issues that fall under these priority areas. As an example, the draft USP ignores the whole biofuels question, which includes important water, climate, and landscape linkage issues that will feed directly into the Nation’s climate mitigation strategies; biofuels are mentioned not a single time across the whole report. More generally, the draft USP conveys little about the specific research that will actually be done and what it might accomplish.

In addition, it is not clear how or why these priority areas were chosen and how they relate to priority areas under other objectives. For example, although carbon cycling is an important research area, it is not clear why basic science on carbon in coastal ecosystems is a priority area under Science for Mitigation and Adaptation. Objective 1.1 also includes a priority area on the carbon cycle. Are these priority areas linked or overlapping, or are they distinct? Likewise, a key part of the methane cycling priority area

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

is focused on measurements and observations for use in biogeochemical models, as well as processes governing natural methane emissions. Although there is reference to the “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions” in the President’s Climate Action Plan, it does not appear that the USGCRP’s research agenda includes research on strategies to reduce anthropogenic emissions of methane.

Furthermore, the logical distinction between the two priority areas “Models for Decision Making” and “Translational Research to Inform Adaptation and Mitigation Decisions” is unclear. The “downscaling” under the modeling priority area is presumably what is needed to support the decision making at the regional or more local levels alluded to under translational research. Similarly, the “translational scenarios” in the latter presumably reflect the “potential future conditions” in the former. More clarity is needed on these two objectives, how they relate to each other, and how they contribute to a research agenda designed to improve options for mitigation and adaptation.

In addition, because Objective 1.2 falls under “Goal 1: Advance Science”, the focus of both of these areas should be on the USGCRP’s research related to the process of decision making or the support of decision making, rather than the use or translation of research (which is the focus of Goal 2: Inform Decisions). The specific research that would be conducted under these two priority areas needs more clarification. Although the Update refers to expanding “efforts to assess what levels of broad scale mitigation are necessary to avoid a range of adverse outcomes” (p. 19), as noted above, framing decision support needs primarily in terms of damages to be avoided does not address the fundamental need for information about how to avoid those damages or how best to adapt to reduce residual impacts.

Likewise, assessing vulnerabilities (under the “Resilience and Vulnerability Research” priority area) is an important step for better understanding and managing the risks of a changing climate, but more than that is needed to inform decision making. As noted in the NAS report on Climate and Social Stresses: Implications for Security Analysis (NRC, 2013), a critical gap in effective adaptation planning is the limited long-term data on factors affecting vulnerability. Investments are needed in long-term data collection to improve understanding of how vulnerability changes over time, and the reasons for those changes. Another need is benchmarking of current capacities to prepare for and manage climate variability and change; evaluations of the future effectiveness of adaptation decisions will need a baseline against which to compare.

Overall, it is problematic that the draft USP discusses almost exclusively what information physical climate science can provide––not what science is needed more broadly to support adaptation or mitigation decision making (see examples on p. 22 ln 7, p. 33 ln 17, p. 38 ln 6, and several other instances listed in Appendix D). Although there is text on adaptation, and descriptions of the importance of adaptation to ensuring the resilience of the Nation, these are not integrated with the discussions of climate science. Nearly every instance of “science, data, information, and knowledge” refers to physical climate science. This perspective informs much of the text, giving the overall impression that facilitating adaptation is primarily a matter of providing more and better information on projected changes in weather patterns to decision makers (also see Boxes 2.2 and 2.3). Note there is only one mention of adaptive management in the document (page 48); this

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

key issue is not discussed in the text on adaptation. It would be valuable to ensure the text focuses not just on what is needed in service to the Nation in a broader scientific context.

There is another line of research that would supplement the existing portfolio of work on adaptation and mitigation. In the draft USP the Program invites comments on the topic of climate intervention. The Committee’s response is in Box 3.1.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

3.4 INTEGRATED OBSERVATIONS (OBJECTIVE 1.3)

The discussion of Objective 1.3 in the draft USP takes up observations of the biophysical components of Earth system and not the human dimensions. Thus, the section needs to be renamed or should incorporate the social science observations that are in place or needed.

Geoscience research requires physical, chemical, and biological observations. When studying a changing environment observations must be sustained over long periods of time. Shorter observational periods are appropriate in some cases for specific process studies.

Given the importance and financial requirements of long-term observing, it is essential that progress be documented in terms of the scientific understanding gained as well as the decision-support information that is provided via various types of observing platforms, sensors, and networks. The draft USP is vague on what has been maintained, what observing systems have been re-tooled, and what new observing systems have been put in place. The section discusses many opportunities that might be transformative, but it is not clear how priorities will be established among these opportunities. There is also no discussion of data informatics and progress towards easy depositing and retrieval of data. Is there really a need from the user community for raw data? And how will citizen science observations be quality-controlled and incorporated into a data information system?

The section on “Leveraging International and National Partnerships” includes a long list of coordinating mechanisms, which are repeated in the international section. Nothing is stated about what is being coordinated with these groups or how coordination is occurring or is reflected in the Program’s priorities.

3.5 INTEGRATED MODELING (OBJECTIVE 1.4)

The update of research on integrated modeling would be more informative if reorganized to follow more closely the description in the Strategic Plan. As now drafted the selection of topics seems random, and thus the text does not emphasize how the research serves the stated objective: to “Improve and develop advanced models that integrate across the physical, biological and human components of the Earth System . . .”

The discussions of progress in spatial and temporal resolution and integration with observations are devoted to the physical models. Outside the mention of AgMIP there is no coverage of efforts on integration with chemical and biological systems. What efforts as have been under way should be included. Also, much of the physical-model detail in these sections, important as they are, should be taken up under Objective 1.1. The summary of this work is more usefully organized under a general heading of “Model Complexity,” emphasizing the results that are key to understanding the links to chemical, biological, and human phenomena. The achievements in downscaling and multiple scales of temporal resolution are mentioned only briefly. In the same vein, the discussion of MIPs would be better if it focused on how they (or which ones of them) contribute to a better understanding of the integration of components of the climate system.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

In its coverage of Earth and human systems the text does not reflect the attention given to this objective in the Strategic Plan. In the Maintaining Directions introduction, the draft notes that the USGCRP “includes” model development in this area, rather than declaring it a main objective. Moreover, the Progress section does not reflect the depth of existing work, and the Challenges description omits consideration of difficult tradeoffs in integrated model development; it should also include a discussion of priorities.

The opening section on Progress on Human and Earth Systems declares that the USGCRP is only “beginning to enrich” models in this area, and the following text fails to credit over 20 years of effort in this area, with achievements worth mention under the current Plan. Much of this work has been under the Integrated Assessment Research Program of DOE/BER/CESD, but also in the research programs and outreach efforts of NSF, USDA/ERS, EPA, and other agencies. Instead, the text points to advances in carbon modeling, work with the CMIP ensemble, and collaboration on a health report. To be more informative of the current state of this work, the Update needs to summarize the research to date on the integration of emissions drivers and policy cost, as well as climate effects on energy, land use change, agriculture, health, and water systems, carried out with representations of the physical climate system ranging from simple temperature balance models to EMICs to AOGCMS.

A main focus of the section on Navigating Challenges is the integration of human systems, and the Update would be enriched by discussion of two additional challenges. First, there has been much discussion between the USGCRP and the NAS of the fact that the changing landscape of the U.S. climate research effort includes increasing demands for information by stakeholders dealing with complex choices regarding adaptation and mitigation. Should this development suggest a change in focus among integrated modeling efforts, or even among broader USGCRP priorities?

Second, properly representing uncertainty and the limits to current knowledge is a crucial aspect of descriptions of human and environmental vulnerability and efforts to inform choices of adaptation. The discussion would benefit if it addressed the concern, clearly stated in the Strategic Plan, that the increases in model complexity, praised above, make it more and more difficult to quantify uncertainty in model results. This dilemma raises a question about priorities in the strategy of integrated model development, and the Committee believes that current thinking on the question should be summarized in this section.

Finally, the USGCRP’s first Climate Modeling Summit (draft USP box, p. 27) cites the first in a series of meetings being planned to focus on models for decision makers. Participants in such a meeting should be extended beyond the six U.S. CMIP-scale modeling centers to include researchers on environmental and human interactions with the climate, and it should address these two additional challenges, as recommended in previous reports (NRC, 2012).

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

3.6 INFORMATION MANAGEMENT (OBJECTIVE 1.5)

A useful, cumulative program of research requires effective archiving and efficient access to data. Indeed, in many areas of science, substantial progress in fundamental understanding has come from improved management of large volumes of data in ways that make it accessible to an expanded community of researchers. In some research communities, such as the social sciences, there is a history of community data archives that stretch back more than half a century, and both community norms and requirements of funding agencies insure that data is readily available for reanalysis. In other communities, the tradition of data archiving and research based on analysis of shared data is less well developed. The Committee commends the efforts of the USGCRP to move towards improved archiving of and easy access to data useful for global change research. We offer the following specific suggestions regarding this Objective.

First, data archiving and access mechanisms should be designed with the users of those data sources in mind. The update does not discuss who the USGCRP sees as users for its efforts over the next three years, nor how those users will be consulted and called upon to evaluate and refine current efforts. In a similar vein, the draft USP does not offer examples of the ways the data being made available over the next three years are likely to be used. Unless the data system is designed with users in mind and is based on ongoing feedback from them, there is a high risk of building a sophisticated structure that gets little use. It is possible that the uses over the next three years are understood and users are engaged in advising the design of the system, but this was not clear from the draft. To be sure, one advantage of easy access to high quality data is that unanticipated lines of research emerge. But the possibility of serendipity is not a substitute for planning for specific uses with specific users.

Second, it is not clear how the effort is learning from long standing successes (and failures) in large scale data archiving and access initiatives. Nor was it clear how the effort underway will be evaluated over the next few years, nor what would be seen as success. It is also not clear what the next set of priorities will be, nor even how they would be determined once the efforts described are successful. That is, it would be helpful to anticipate the planning that will be undertaken to support what will be proposed in the next triennial update.

Third, while the discussion of social science data was welcome, it is not clear what data is likely to be incorporated and why. Given the long history of community data archives in the social sciences, there may be opportunities to be grasped both in terms of mechanisms for making data available and in the data itself. The Committee notes in passing that while concerns with confidentiality are of course important, social science data from federal agencies and other researchers are nearly always provided in forms that have already been vetted to protect confidentiality. While there may be cases where new protocols are needed, many of these issues have been worked out.

Fourth, there are several ongoing data initiatives worth mentioning because of their implications for strategic evolution in this objective. For example, the NOAA-National Water Center has data provision responsibilities of a kind that will provide valuable learning. (“Scientists at the Center will collaboratively research, develop and deliver state-

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

of-the-science national hydrologic analyses, forecast information, data, decision-support services and guidance to support and inform essential emergency services and high-value water management decisions.” [NOAA, 2015]). In addition the hydrological science consortium CUAHSI is building a hydrologic information system that uses and creates value-added products from agency data sets and may provide an interesting path for testing federal-private partnerships. The Committee also notes that, given the importance of adaptation to the USGCRP, it is surprising that there is no discussion of the need for data on vulnerability that can be used for both assessment and for planning.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
Page 35
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
Page 36
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
Page 37
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
Page 38
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
Page 39
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Science Focus and Scope." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Update to the Strategic Plan Document. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23396.
×
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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. The Strategic Plan sets out a research program guiding thirteen federal agencies in accord with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. This report reviews 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 history and trajectory of the Program.

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