The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP or “Program”) is an interagency program, established by the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990, mandated by Congress to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change” (P.L. 101-606). Since the Program began, scientific understanding of global change has increased and the information needs of the nation have changed dramatically. At the request of the USGCRP, the National Academies’ Committee to Advise the USGCRP prepared this report to provide a brief overview of the Program’s contributions to global change research through multiagency planning and coordination.
The federal agencies’ responses to provisions in the GCRA have resulted in two primary value-added activities of the USGCRP: (1) strategic planning and coordination of global change research activities across the many federal agencies engaged in global change research and (2) high-level synthesis of global change research results and sharing them with decision makers and the American public. These two primary activities of the USGCRP—guided by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, the National Coordination Office, and numerous interagency working groups—have shaped the program priorities of the individual participating agencies and contributed to many advancements in scientific capabilities, understanding, and applications.
The research planning and coordination activities of the USGCRP culminate in the production of decennial strategic plans, the most recent one covering the period 2012-2021. Accomplishments in global change research guided by the strategic planning of the Program are synthesized in the Program’s annual report to Congress and in assessments, including the periodic National Climate Assessments, with a core focus on the observed and projected challenges to the United States posed by global change. Both the strategic plans and the assessments are collaborative products of the 13 agencies and departments that participate in the Program. The Program has also played a leadership role in international cooperative efforts, including participation in collaborative research programs, development of global observation systems, and participation in intergovernmental assessment activities.
Through interagency partnerships and collaborations with leading experts, the USGCRP has worked since its inception to advance global change science and to improve the understanding of how global environmental changes are impacting society today and how they could affect society in the future. The ways that the Program has enabled these advancements have been documented in a large body of existing literature, including products of the Program and participating agencies, national and international assessments, previous National Academies reports, and many other reports from the scientific community. This report highlights several examples of scientific accomplishments that resulted from multiagency collaborations enabled by the USGCRP: the development of global Earth observing systems, improvements in Earth system modeling capabilities, and understanding of carbon cycle processes. The USGCRP has also been a leader in bringing the understanding of society and social dynamics to the study of global change, both directly in its assessments and through fostering learning across its member agencies and departments, although progress in this area has been uneven at times.
For these efforts, and many others, the USGCRP provides a platform for the agencies to coordinate their global change research and to share information that helps to inform decisions at every level of society in ways that have provided great value to the nation. In addition to the highlighted accomplishments mentioned above, the report includes a series of schematics that illustrate the role the USGCRP plays in supporting research and application that provide this value. For example, USGCRP activities enable guidance to farmers on the use of fertilizers for their crops to increase yield while
maintaining environmental quality, and guidance to community officials, emergency managers, and citizens on excessive heat events to help reduce morbidity and mortality.
Despite the advancements in global change research, the USGCRP has faced and is facing challenges. The Program is a coordinating structure across different agencies with no authority over individual agency missions or budgets, which imposes limitations on the Program’s abilities to plan and support research. Additionally, although the need to integrate social science research within the Program’s global change research portfolio is recognized and was recommended early in its existence, there remain obstacles to this effort, such as lack of sustained funding and commitment to data resources, and the need to actively engage the larger environmental social science community beyond the participating agencies.
The first 25 years of the USGCRP have been marked by a series of major accomplishments. Unprecedented efforts have been made to observe the natural and built environments and to document changes. Equally important, impressive advances have been made in the understanding of global change and the capacity to model it. In addition, the availability of scientific knowledge to decision makers has been significantly improved. In the coming decades, the impacts of global change will become increasingly apparent, and the Program will need to augment the knowledge base for exploring options to protect the nation’s interests in the face of accelerating global changes. The Program should build on its accomplishments by sustaining, expanding, and coordinating observations of the Earth system and maintaining a balanced program of discovery-driven and use-inspired research to support the needs of the nation at local, regional, national, and global scales. The Program is well poised to tackle this task.