The $1.5 Billion Question: Can the U.S. Global Change Research Program Deliver on Its Promises?

By Monastersky, Richard | Science News, September 4, 1993 | Go to article overview

The $1.5 Billion Question: Can the U.S. Global Change Research Program Deliver on Its Promises?


Monastersky, Richard, Science News


Can the U.S. Global Change Research Program deliver on its promises?

Standing in the glass-walled atrium of the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C., last April, with the fronds of tropical palms and ferns hanging over his head, President Clinton picked an appropriately symbolic site to announce a new U.S. policy on the problem known as greenhouse warming. The President committed the nation to follow a strict schedule for cutting its emissions of heat-trapping gases, a plan the previous administration had steadfastly rejected, citing scientific uncertainty over the scale of the climate problem.

President Bush had not, however, ignored the global warming issue. Given his stated emphasis on uncertainty, the President poured money into climate research and over a three-year period nearly doubled funding for scientific investigations of global change. Upon taking office, Clinton continued that tradition. His 1994 budget calls for increasing research funds in this area by $150 million, for a total of nearly $1.5 billion spread among 11 different agencies.

Despite such generous backing for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP), a growing number of critics warn that the program appears headed toward failure unless fundamental changes are made. The main issue is a question of relevancy. While almost everyone agrees the research effort will support important scientific work over the next decade or more, it will not necessarily provide the kinds of information policymakers need to address the threat of climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, and other issues that fall under the rubric of global change.

At a May hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, several science policy experts voiced concerns about the global change program's focus. Irving Mintzer, an energy policy researcher who splits his time between the University of Maryland in College Park and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, warned: "As currently structured, the USGCRP cannot make readily available, during the next seven to 10 years, the critically important pieces of high-quality, policy-relevant information. Thus, the USGCRP cannot adequately service those asked to make difficult economic and environmental policy decisions."

At the same hearing, Steve Rayner of Battelle's Pacific Northwest Laboratory reached similar conclusions about the weakness of the research effort. "Many components of the USGCRP are high-quality projects that may substantially advance the state of the art in various scientific fields. It is equally clear that these studies have had only a tenuous connection to the present needs of public and private decision makers," testified Rayner, who heads global environmental management studies at Battelle's Washington, D.C., office.

Things were supposed to develop differently. As conceived in 1989, the Global Change Research Program had the stated goal of providing the kind of scientific information needed by policymakers. Over the years, the program's senior managers have repeatedly advertised the effort as one designed to be "policy-relevant."

In actuality, though, scientific rather than policy questions have driven the research program, according to Mintzer, Rayner, and other observers. Managed mostly by physical scientists, the program developed a central goal of reducing uncertainty by improving the basic understanding of how the Earth's climate system works. A major fraction of the program's funding has gone to building an armada of satellites -- only a few of which have flown so far -- that can observe the Earth from space. Focused research projects have addressed critical questions such as how clouds and the oceans might speed up or slow down climate change. At the same time, experts have constructed elaborate climate models on computers to improve predictions of future conditions.

While not denying the importance of that research, many experts both inside and outside the program now agree that the basic science effort is not enough. …

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