Report Challenges Ambitious Plan for U.S. Climate Research

Dick writes about Earth and planetary science for Science magazine.

A report from the National Research Council (NRC) released today points out that a draft federal plan to coordinate research into how to respond to climate change is unlikely to succeed without added resources and new ways to manage the program.

The NRC committee—chaired by climate modeler Warren Washington of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado—commends the 21-year-old U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) for proposing to broaden its scope beyond coordinating basic climate research. Its new draft strategic plan includes research that would support society's efforts to reduce the magnitude of greenhouse warming and other climate change—and to adapt to any unavoidable change. "Now that we have a pretty good handle on the climate science," says Washington, it is appropriate that USGCRP begin fulfilling Congress's intent in 1990 legislation that created a federal interagency group to coordinate research.

The rub comes in how to support and manage such ambitions. "The USGCRP and its [13] member agencies and programs are lacking in capacity to achieve the proposed broadening of the Program," says the report. "Member agencies and programs have insufficient expertise" to integrate the social and ecological sciences into the program or to develop the capacity to support decision makers.

The committee also raises a long-standing concern about USGCRP: It lacks the needed governance structure. Without strengthened governance, even a capable, broadened USGCRP would remain a hodgepodge of agencies' favorite research programs, according to the report. "We were hoping there would be a way to coordinate better, especially on the congressional side," says Washington. "Our greatest worry is the implementation in a somewhat hostile political environment. It's going to be awfully hard."

USGCRP principals are "very pleased with the NRC report," says Timothy Killeen, assistant director in the Directorate for Geosciences at the National Science Foundation and the USGCRP vice chair who led development of the strategic plan. "We do recognize there are some gaps in our capacity." Coordinators plan to bring in more expertise from USGCRP agencies and nonmember agencies, academia, and state agencies, says Thomas Armstrong, executive director of USGCRP. Interagency working groups are also being formed that include program managers and scientific experts "who know the science and can write the checks," says Armstrong. The final strategic plan is due out later this month.

Posted in Climate