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What is Climate Science Policy?


Climate science policy in the SPARC project refers to both the broader societal context under which climate science is justified and conducted and to the specific decision processes that govern the climate research enterprise. Climate science policy is to be distinguished, therefore, from climate policy, which comprises the broad realm of decisions, policies, and processes justified as a societal response to climate. There is a relationship between the two, of course, described in a separate background paper. Research on climate science policy such as we conduct in SPARC focuses on all of the aspects that comprise the science policy decision process for climate science, from public justification of expenditures on climate science, to priority setting, selection of projects, human resources, institutional and cultural settings, and outcomes.

In the United States, climate science has been an identifiable priority for over 25 years. Climate science has consistently been justified as a public priority based on the expectation that it would “assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications1.” This position is typical of U.S. science policies in general since the end of World War II. Over the last half century, public expenditure on science grew tremendously, under the general philosophy articulated by Vannevar Bush in 1945 that basic research “creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn2.” Over the past decade in particular, public investment in climate science has been justified by the expectation that the resulting scientific knowledge will enable, support, and improve climate policy decisions—that is, decisions related to the impacts of climate on society, and of society on climate3. It is the job of science policies to fulfill this expectation.

U.S. climate science policies to date have generally followed the model of producing information in the largely basic science realm, prioritized by scientific judgment of what constitutes “cutting edge” research questions with respect to climate science. While Federal climate science programs emerged in the late 1970s, it was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that climate science became a major component of the non-defense research and development budget. With the advent of the U.S. Global Research Program in 1990, budgets quickly ramped up within a few years to over US$1.7 billion annually, and now stand at US$1.9 billion in 2004 in the Climate Change Science Program4. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Commerce/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) together are responsible for making decisions to spend approximately 90% of the climate research budget. The rest of the budget is divided between the other nine agencies5.

Climate science decision makers set and execute priorities through a variety of mechanisms. Each agency has a separate mission and culture—NSF and NASA are known as agencies focusing on “basic” research, often described as “curiosity-driven”, research “without thought of practical end” or “extending the area of fundamental knowledge.6” This contrasts with other agencies that are often described as having research portfolios that are “applied” or “mission-driven.” These two categories are in actuality not mutually exclusive, and mission agencies often speak of their “basic research” portfolio, while basic science agencies strive to demonstrate “broader impact” of their research7. Nonetheless, agency culture and mission strongly influence how priorities are determined. Ultimately, the decision to fund projects or redirect government laboratory programs is made by program managers at the agencies.

While climate scientists are not formal decision makers in allocating project funds, the process of peer review of proposals and program planning as well as program advocacy and review through the National Academy of Sciences ensures that scientists exert strong influence over setting climate science priorities. Over 90% of the climate science budget is spent by agencies that follow peer review as a major element of decision making to varying degrees. Using peer review for judging the quality of research emerged as widespread practice as part of the post-World War II science policy model.

Looking from a macro-level perspective, climate science policy decision makers include Senators and members of Congress, personal and Committee Staff, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). OMB and OSTP focus on budgets from a higher level perspective, setting priorities for climate research across the Federal government through negotiation with each agency. After changes and negotiation between both Houses of Congress, the budget becomes law when passed by Congress and signed by the President. The appropriations for each agency are then allocated by program managers after they have filtered down through their own agencies. Climate science policy is therefore made by a fairly select group of decision makers, including program managers, budget examiners, scientists, and members of Congress.

Currently, climate science priorities lie predominantly in biogeophysical disciplines and the majority of the budget is spent on observations or computer modeling studies8. These are partitioned according to category of scientific interest, such as climate variability and change, carbon cycle science, water cycle, ecosystems, and so on. A very modest amount is spent on social science and decision support explicitly.

Do these priorities currently lead to outcomes originally envisioned by lawmakers and the public in that they “enable, support and improve climate policy decisions”? How have our science policies for enabling climate decision making performed? Is climate science fulfilling its charge of “usable” science, and can its approach be improved? SPARC is evaluating the process and outcomes of climate science to understand how decisions are currently supported, and to develop options for climate science policy to improve the ability of climate science to support decision making.

1 U.S. House of Representatives, 1978. National Climate Program Act, Public Law 95-367.
2 Bush, V., 1945. Science: The Endless Frontier. Reprinted July 1960, National Science Foundation, Washington, DC.
3 National Research Council, 2003; Climate Change Science Program, 2002; NRC 2001, USGCRP 1989-2002.
4 USGCRP, 2005. Our Changing Planet: The U.S. Climate Change Science Program for Fiscal Years 2004 and 2005.
5 US Department of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Department of Interior/US Geological Survey, Department of State, Department of Transportation, US Agency for International Development, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Smithsonian Institution.
6 Stokes, D.E., 1997. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press. Washington, DC.
7 See NSF’s proposal evaluation criteria.
8 See footnote 4.