The US Climate Change Science Program and Decision Support

November 29th, 2005

Posted by: admin

A few weeks ago, the US Climate Change Science Program held a large public workshop with the stated goal of “serving as a forum to address the Program’s progress and future plans regarding its three decision support approaches.” In the Strategic plan, these three approaches are broken down into producing synthesis and assessment reports, developing adaptive management approaches and developing methods to support climate change policy making. This conference was organized around only the first two topics, not explicitly discussing the third.

I attended the workshop, along with about 800 other people. The breakdown of attendees was not given, but among presenters the statistics were clear—scientists and government participants dominated. The paucity of attendance of true “decisionmakers” who might be using the information generated by the program was readily apparent. If taking time to attend a three-day meeting is any indication of who the stakeholders of the CCSP are, the message is obvious: scientists and scientific agencies.

This poses a real problem for a program determined to make its research support decision making, in whatever topic. How can one hope to make a product that is useful to someone without some sense of the market, if you will, for that product? How can a workshop hope to provide useful feedback to program direction if the intended beneficiaries are largely absent? And how does feedback from such a workshop affect agency direction, compared with say, agency steering committees or panels of scientific peer reviewers? As Dr. Mahoney stated quite clearly at the conclusion of the conference, agencies themselves are responsible for the content of the CCSP: as to the funding– “everything has to go that way” i.e. through the agencies. He acknowledged the limited influence that CSPO (the office that coordinates the CCSP) has in directing the work of the CCSP.

In another clear statement, Dr. Mahoney stated that the mandate of the CCSP is to do “research and observations,” not to be providing decision support. In fact, however, the Global Change Research Program Act specifically states that the program should “provide usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change.” This provides plenty of legal authority for program activities, including research and observations, being “usable” for decision making. And while the CSPO may not have the power to ensure the program is usable, the Committee (i.e. the agency managers) overseeing the program certainly does have the mandate to “consult with actual and potential users of the results of the Program to ensure that such results are useful in developing national and international policy responses to global change.”

Which brings me to my final observation. The final session of the meeting was devoted to setting priorities for the future. One of the discussion questions was “What information do we need to better support decision makers and refine CCSP’s future decision support priorities?” Several of the speakers presented interesting and thoughtful ideas for the future evolution of the program, including the need for evaluation of the use of information with respect to outcomes, the need for a dialogue on the appropriateness of CCSP activities to the public need, and the need to pay attention to scales and decision makers beyond the national governmental level. The response of Dr. Mahoney was to emphasize the limited influence of CSPO (his office that coordinates the CCSP), restate the focus of CCSP on research and observations, and to highlight the zero-growth budget prospects for the program, very frank although not very optimistic responses.

Although I certainly enjoyed aspects of the conference, and was pleased to see so many scientists earnestly working at this interface of creating scientific information that is usable to society, I ultimately left feeling that an opportunity had been lost. The amount of funding spent on the types of research highlighted at the conference such as regional integrated sciences and assessments, applications programs and the like is quite small, probably less than 5%, and that would be a generous estimate. The work relating to decision support is that is going on is often marginalized, and institutional structures and incentives for researchers are not well-aligned with providing usable science to improve societal outcomes. It is not clear that the CCSP has seriously taken on the challenge of decision support and how it relates to the current program structure and priorities. The optimist in me hopes that this type of transformation is possible, but it will take more than good intentions and words on a page. It will take leadership, prioritization, planning and political will.

7 Responses to “The US Climate Change Science Program and Decision Support”

  1. kevin v Says:

    Good report, Lisa. Re: the amount of $$ spent on regional assessments, etc. is less than 5% of the total pool. What is the breakdown on the remaining 95% (i.e., is it mostly basic science on atmospheric chemistry and similar veins?) and what is the decision structure behind deciding how that money is distributed? Is CSPO allocating money or does it run through NSF or other agency funding structures?

  2. 2
  3. Lisa Dilling Says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment. Of the remaining 95%, the majority is basic research. Looking at the numbers from agencies, NASA is about 77% ($1,334M) of the 2004 CCSP budget, and while I include the NASA applications program in the 5% applied research figure in the post, the vast majority is basic (NASA by definition has basic research as its mission). The next largest agency of the CCSP is NSF at $213 million, a basic research agency. DOE and NOAA/DOC contributions to CCSP are largely basic, although the regional assessments in NOAA, also mentioned in the post is about $5M a year. The rest of the agencies (EPA, USDA, etc.) involved are less than 10% of the budget. As to your second question, decisions about budgets run through the agencies (and OMB, Congress counterparts). CCSP/CSPO (the office) is an organizing umbrella, but in my experience has little power to dictate what the agencies do and no authority to allocate funds (as Dr. Mahoney himself said). One of the challenges in the interagency world is that no agency has authority over any other agency, and since the head of CSPO sits in NOAA, an agency, it is unlikely that it can really change another agency’s direction, unless discussions are had at the Cabinet level and then filter down that way through the agency. Persuasion can sometimes work too at lower levels, and interagency collaborations do work that way, but they are based on trust and good will, not directives from any particular person in another agency.

  4. 3
  5. Jim Angel Says:


    Since you had some 177 comments on the hockey game and only 2 on climate decision support, can we assume that scientists are more interested in debating the finer points of data and statistics than grappling with issues of decisionmakers and stakeholders? Sadly, I think I know the answer to this semi-rhetorical question.


    Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here by me do not represent my employer.

  6. 4
  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Lisa- Thanks for this very interesting report from the CCSP meeting!

    Jim A. and Lisa- The evolution (or not) of the CCSP supports the old adage — the more things change, the more they stay the same. Have a look at this analysis of the USGCRP based on work more than 10 years ago:

    Pielke Jr., R. A., 1995: Usable Information for Policy: An Appraisal of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Policy Sciences, 38, 39-77.

  8. 5
  9. Roger Says:

    Climate observations and modeling are becoming increasingly important for a wide segment of society ranging from water resource managers, public health officials, agribusinesses, energy providers, forest managers, insurance companies, and city planners. In order to address the consequences of climate change and better serve the nation’s decision-makers, the research enterprise dealing with environmental change and environment-society interactions must be enhanced. The ability of the United States to assess future climate change is severely limited by the lack of a climate observing system, by inadequate computational resources, and by the general inability of government to focus resources on climate problems. Efforts are needed to ensure that U.S. efforts in climate research are supported and managed so as to ensure innovation, effectiveness and efficiency.

  10. 6
  11. Lisa Dilling Says:

    Roger P,
    thanks for the comment. Yes, it’s pretty similar but perhaps with one shift. Some individual agencies are starting little pockets of activity experimenting with connecting their science to society more explictly. Activities such as NOAA’s RISAs, the IRI, and NASA Applications weren’t around back then. But I’d agree that for the most part there is a lot of persistence in the system..

  12. 7
  13. Lisa Dilling Says:

    Hi Roger,
    Thanks for your comment. RE the need for a climate observing system, computational resources etc. and a focused program, the US does spend over $2billion a year on its climate program, over 65% of which is observations. I would not dispute your last point about needing to encourage innovation etc., but I would ask, in what way should the climate enterprise be focused differently than it already is? I would argue that more attention could be paid to the issue of decision support and how it effectively accomplished.