Strong words put forth for communications as part of strategic plan for Global Change Research Program. Still To Be Determined: Will actions match the words?

Communications, decision support, and outreach to decision makers could get added emphasis in a long-overdue revised strategic plan for federal government climate science, now in a public comment period.

The revised strategic plan for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is to replace a plan developed in 2003 by a less-enthusiastic Bush administration, but it’s aggressive implementation under the Obama administration that could make the real difference.

The new strategic USGCRP plan has attracted the interest of the National Academy of Sciences, which has a committee of experts overseeing its development, and from many in the research community and political arenas. The previous strategic plan had attracted substantial controversy.

Leaders of the 13 federal agencies comprising the USGCRP are to announce the new plan in December 2011. A draft is available and open for public comments until November 29, 2011. The new plan puts much greater emphasis on decision support and zeroes-in on four main goals:

  • advancing the science of climate change;
  • informing decisions;
  • building sustained assessments; and
  • advancing communication and education to broaden public understanding of global change.

The USGCRP coordinates and integrates federal research on environmental change, including climate change. The new plan is to dictate research from 2012 to 2021 and guide USGCRP priorities in coming years.

The new plan, according to Tom Karl, chair of the USGCRP and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, “has a strong basis in advancing science, but it also tries to span out the connectivity in the earth-system science to human-system science in trying to see if we can’t make those linkages as seamless as possible.”

Peer Review Not End of Scientists’ Work …

Those linkages form what Karl calls an “end-to-end approach,” in which scientists will be tasked to integrate research with monitoring and modeling, decision support, and communications to link scientific discovery to society’s needs. “Our job as scientists doesn’t end once we write a peer reviewed paper,” said Karl. “We are making sure that information can be used as technically as possible.”

Some of the changes in the strategic plan are the result of advances in climate science over the last decade. In a telephone interview, Tom Armstrong, executive director of USGCRP, explained reasons for changes in the program priorities.

“One challenge is in trying to become more responsive, and responding more effectively and in a more coordinated fashion, with communications, education, and climate services,” Armstrong said, adding that communications and education have historically been given less attention and funding. “The major funding emphasis has traditionally been on the physical climate system and advancing the science component,” said Armstrong. “There’s a strong effort to understand the physical climate system for very good reasons.”

So, how does the new roadmap better serve science, policy makers and the public? “It explicitly calls attention to one of our key pillars, which is informing decisions,” said Karl. “We now have a significant portion of our strategy on understanding and advancing the science, but trying to make sure that information is useful for decision support …. The best information is the kind that is understood by the users, and that is importance we are stressing.”

Revisiting History of Earlier Plan

In the long, dense 2003 document, communication was featured in one of 16 chapters. One key area climate change communicators will want to follow is how the plan will seek to achieve planned outcomes, such as “Enable discoveries through transformational research that can lead to breakthroughs in how the country understands and responds to global change.” (page 76)

Climate Science Watch’s Piltz: Good words and intentions, but ….

Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch, a nonprofit group that examines how government officials use climate research in policy decisions, had been a staffer at the USGCRP coordination office (then called the Climate Change Science Program) and was involved with development of the previous strategic plan under the Bush administration. Piltz resigned his position in 2005 over what he considered to be political interference that mischaracterized climate science.

“The 2003 strategic plan had elements of strategic goals, but it didn’t give a clear picture of who will do what,” Piltz said in an interview. The 2003 plan, he continued, was developed under a high level of political sensitivity toward climate change. “It had very cautious language, and it suppressed all references to the first National Climate Assessment,” said Piltz.

Piltz said the new plan is “way overdue” but falls short in some key areas. “I think the intention is good,” he said. “They’ve tried to be more responsive and concise. But this strategic plan doesn’t have a budget, and it doesn’t look at obstacles, which is what a true strategic plan would do and address in the corporate world.”

Communication and education — reaching a diverse audience, engaging people, cultivating a knowledgeable American workforce — are the least developed parts of the plan, according to Piltz. “The words are good but compared to the other sections, it seems underdeveloped and under-cooked,” Piltz said.

Conversely, Piltz remarked that the “advancing the science” section is built on decades of major research and thus is moving forward with a highly detailed and very clear research agenda.

Everything Hinges … on Implementation

Richard Moss: Implementation challenges lie ahead, will be key.

Richard Moss, senior staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, in College Park, Maryland, had been director of the USGCRP, then called the Climate Change Science Program, during development of the 2003 strategic plan.

“We got dinged because of political circumstances,” said Moss. “In this case, the administration is not doubting climate science, and we are able to have an honest dialogue about what the plan needs.”

Moss said the strength of this new strategic plan is that it ties environmental change to societal change, especially through informing decision makers and communicators. “Everything now hinges on the implementation of the plan,” Moss said.

Asked in a joint telephone call how the climate communications goals will be implemented and measured, Karl and Armstrong fell silent for six seconds. Armstrong finally piped up: “This is something that my office is leading the effort on, developing an implementation plan,” he said.

As with most strategic plans once adopted, implementation remains the next critical step.

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