Scientists back 'significant broadening' of climate research amid tight budgets

Story highlights

  • Adapting to climate change "is becoming a higher priority," the review chairman says
  • The National Academy of Sciences says budgets will be an issue
  • "Questions of how will become paramount," an NAS review notes
  • Review also calls for advising policymakers on how changing environment affects people
U.S. scientists want to expand research into climate change to focus on its social effects and ways to adapt to a changing planet, but tighter budgets may crimp those plans, the National Academy of Sciences reported Thursday.
The 10-year plan reviewed by the academy represents a "significant broadening" of the federal Global Change Research Program, which includes researchers from across the U.S. government. Thursday's report by the academy's National Research Council generally supports the proposal but warned that researchers may have to overcome fiscal as well as scientific hurdles.
"The proposed broadening of the program's scope from climate change only to climate change and 'climate-related global changes' is an important step in the right direction," the review committee concluded. But it cautioned that "in an era of increasingly constrained budget resources, those questions of how will become paramount."
Thursday's report follows a 2009 review that recommended reorganizing climate research to focus on the relationships between direct natural effects -- increasing temperatures, shrinking polar icecaps and higher sea levels -- and human needs such as agriculture or fresh water. Washington said the proposal reflects the need for input from disciplines beyond natural science as societies face changes in land use, fisheries and water resources -- whether related to climate or not.
Michael McPhaden, the president of the American Geophysical Union, said there is a growing demand for data even as budgets for the work are being cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, saw its climate research funding cut by 20% for the current budget year.
"It's going to make it a challenge to really do what the U.S. Global Change Research Program wants to do and what the National Research Committee is recommending it do," said McPhaden, an oceanographer and climate specialist. "How one navigates these difficult times with reduced horizons in terms of resource availability is a big question."
The recommended changes also reflect scientists' concerns that many of the effects are already under way, "and they're going to take decades or maybe centuries to deal with them," Warren Washington, the chairman of the review committee, told CNN.
"We sort of realize that we have to adapt to a changing climate system worldwide," said Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. "Adaptation is becoming a higher priority at this point."
And McPhaden said communities "have to deal with the changes that you see and will anticipate in the near future."
"To discuss adaptation is not to throw in the towel," he said. "It's saying it's here, and we need to start thinking about ways to adapt. At the same time, if we do nothing -- if it's business as usual -- warming could really get out of hand."
The review also calls for scientists to increase their role in advising policymakers and the public -- a focus the panel called "particularly important and long overdue." McPhaden said up-to-date knowledge is necessary in a variety of enterprises, from farms preparing for next year's crop to insurance companies that sell policies in flood zones.
The panel recommended more interaction between physical scientists and social scientists, "to translate the information that scientists generate to products and services that people can use," he said.