Optimizing the Federal Budget Process and Timeline To Center Climate Science
Funding for climate science in the United States comes primarily from the federal government—to the tune of approximately $2.4 billion every year, according to “Our Changing Planet,” a congressionally mandated annual report that provides an overview of climate research expenditures across many relevant federal agencies. As a result of these investments, the American climate science enterprise—a vast network of individuals and entities loosely coordinated across federal agencies, academia, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and international partners—is a global leader in understanding climate drivers, climate impacts, and future scenarios that depend on policies implemented now and in the future. However, more strategic and increased levels of funding are required to ensure that decision-makers have the timely and accurate information they need to respond to present climate impacts and plan for future climate-related events. Climate science plays a critical role in informing decisions about mitigation and adaptation strategies in the face of climate change—which, after decades of research, science has made clear is unequivocally caused by human activities.
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Support for the basic sciences that provides data and the models required to understand the global climate system is undeniably crucial, as are the investments in research and observations that underpin these models. Simultaneously, understanding how climate change will interact with and affect both human and natural systems is critical for prudent policy decisions. As the extreme events of this summer have acutely demonstrated, climate change is already happening and people across the country are experiencing the detriment of its escalating impacts firsthand. This makes it more important than ever that federal agencies work together to prioritize climate science investments and ensure that the science is reliable, actionable, and freely available for use in understanding the changing climate and consequently preparing for that change. The science must inform decision-making in a constantly evolving landscape to help Americans prepare for an uncertain and risky future, and the federal government must be poised to deliver resources to climate science needs that are shifting and growing. This column describes how federal agencies can and should work together on climate science and provides an idealized process and timeline that the Biden administration and all future administrations should implement to leverage the federal climate science enterprise most effectively on behalf of the American people.
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Coordinating the federal climate science budget
Climate science is not consolidated in one federal agency. Instead, it is distributed across nearly 20 agencies—9 of which were in the USGCRP FY 2021 budget crosscut—each with their own authorities, priorities, and objectives. The annual process by which the agencies develop the president’s budget offers an opportunity for them to coordinate with each other to make smart decisions about the necessary climate science priorities.
Every year for decades, the directors of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have issued a joint memorandum outlining federal research and development priorities for the upcoming president’s budget. Despite partisan differences about climate change and climate science, the past three presidential administrations, as well as the current Biden administration, have featured climate change—though sometimes under coded terms such as environmental change, global change, and others—in the joint memorandum as a research priority. The most recent memorandum—the first from the Biden administration—was released August 27 and “outlines the Administration’s multi-agency R&D priorities for formulating fiscal year (FY) 2023 Budget submissions to the Office of Management and Budget.” One of its top priorities is “[t]ackling climate change,” following only “[p]andemic readiness and prevention.”
However, as detailed below, the agencies have been working on their FY 2023 budgets since early 2021—and some well before that. The White House research priorities memorandum, therefore, is released far too late in the budget process to have any meaningful impact on agencies’ budgetary decision-making. Beyond this timing issue, which the White House can easily remedy by releasing its priorities early in the year, the existing process for determining and integrating climate science funding priorities across agencies is only loosely coordinated and has become more decentralized and balkanized over time, resulting in a bottom-up process rather than a top-down one.
Improving the budget process to serve the dynamic needs of a vast and ever-growing constituency will require timely and formal coordination between several White House offices—primarily the OSTP and its U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), together with the OMB—as well as relevant agencies, to identify climate science priorities early in the process and integrate them into the federal budget. A similar process and timeline to the one laid out below is codified in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 that created the USGCRP and was used in its early days to successfully create a prioritized, interagency set of investments to address the most pressing climate change issues.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program is well-positioned to lead the process
The USGCRP is charged by law to coordinate federal research and investments in understanding the forces shaping the global environment, both human and natural, and their impacts on society. Through the collaboration and cooperation among its 13 member agencies, the USGCRP advances knowledge of Earth system science, laying the foundation for more informed climate-related decision-making. In order to fully realize the most effective connection between science and decision-making, the USGCRP will need to expand and be empowered to increase the contributions of existing member agencies, as well as include other agencies that should be at the table. Because climate change is a complex, multisystem issue that will affect, and therefore necessitate solutions from, nearly every academic discipline, cross-agency, or cross-cutting, climate research is critical.
Stream gauge data are an example of assets that contribute to existing cross-cutting climate research. Collected by the U.S. Geological Survey, these data are combined with satellite measurements of soil moisture to inform the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System. Extension agents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture can bring this climate information to their stakeholders to help them determine what to plant and when to harvest. These data also help inform dam operators at the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation about hydropower supply; dam operators then share this information with grid managers within the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology so they can balance the demand for electricity with supply. In addition, expanding the utility of these basic Earth system science investments has enabled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to create the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which alerts international aid agencies to areas at risk of food insecurity so they can direct resources accordingly.
These are just a few of countless examples where the “whole” is greater than the sum of the parts in terms of the value of well-funded, well-coordinated, basic climate science research. Optimizing and expanding the cross-cutting climate science budget would enhance the USGCRP’s impact by helping local communities make climate-relevant decisions based on projections from powerful models. This would have many benefits; for example, USAID may decide against building a dam because the science shows that the water supply may not be reliable for the life of the project, while the USDA could provide actionable, scientifically informed advice about the risks of expanding pest ranges to inform farmers’ decisions about whether they expand certain crops.
Because of the enormous potential to inform climate decision-making in these ways, the agencies involved in the USGCRP and thus the budgets coordinated should not only be reconsidered but also expanded. For example, while the Department of Defense is a member of the USGCRP, it does not currently report investments in global change research. On the other hand, agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are not members; they should engage in the USGCRP and evaluate their budgets for likely contributions to the overall crosscut.
To realize these societal benefits most efficiently, the USGCRP should lead a top-down federal budget process. If the science is to support real-time decision-making, the administration must optimize the process and timeline to integrate climate science priorities into the budget and better align White House guidance with agency and interagency timelines.
Optimized annual budget process and timeline for federal climate science
A 2020 report from the Center for American Progress detailed how to rebuild and revamp the federal climate science enterprise to meet the needs of a climate-ambitious president, including, among other things, a major increase in climate science funding. The Global Change Research Act grants the USGCRP’s Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) the authority to “fence” the budget from other agency uses and dedicate those resources to support cross-cutting basic research needs across federal agencies. In the not-so-distant past, SGCR principals—agency representatives to the USGCRP—worked with USGCRP leadership and appropriate OMB officials to articulate priorities and allocate federal resources accordingly. Over time, however, the process became more decentralized, making USGCRP more reactive to agency-derived priorities and less able to steer the ship from the outset. Reverting back to the original model authorized in the Global Change Research Act would help centralize the process and ensure that the SGCR is well-positioned to take the lead on defining climate science priorities that require cross-cutting budget resources and thus are best achieved by multiple agencies working in tandem.
The way to make this process successful is to give key OMB, OSTP, and agency staff the authority to represent and make decisions on behalf of their respective organizations. The president, OMB and OSTP directors, and heads of agencies must provide this authority to the appropriate individuals within their organizations. This authority starts from the president and is passed to OMB and OSTP directors and agency heads. For example, in the OMB, the director passes this authority down through the OMB internal management structure, ultimately to a key budget examiner lead who can work with all the other relevant examiners to oversee the process below. A similar authority delegation must happen in the OSTP and federal agencies. These key leads will make up the core of the USGCRP principals and have the authority mentioned above and laid out in the process below. All levels of the OMB, OSTP, and agencies must be on the same page regarding this process and authority.
This section outlines an idealized process and timeline for—together with roles and responsibilities regarding—the federal climate science budget. It updates the timeline originally published in the 2020 CAP climate science report. This process reflects the successful early USGCRP coordination process. Since the FY 2023 budget is nearly complete, the proposed process should be undertaken early in 2022 for the FY 2024 budget.
January to February: Agencies provide input to the USGCRP about research priorities. Early each calendar year, the SGCR should determine the USGCRP’s top-line research priorities for the fiscal year two years out, in close consultation with the OMB. For example, in January 2022, the SGCR should begin discussing what climate priorities should be included in the president’s budget request to Congress for FY 2024, recognizing that some agencies may start their own internal budget process even earlier than this.
No later than March: The OSTP and the OMB advise agencies of their research and development priorities. For the past several years—regardless of the administration in office—the OSTP/OMB joint research and development priorities memorandum has been released later and later in the year. The most recent one was released just weeks ago. Providing this guidance too late in the budgetary process risks agency budgets not reflecting the priorities as well as they could or should. The White House should release the OSTP/OMB joint research and development priorities memorandum no later than March every year. This would help agencies’ realign their internal budgeting processes with its priorities. In addition, the OSTP should work closely with the USGCRP to ensure that the joint OSTP/OMB memorandum reflects input from the SGCR regarding specific climate science priorities that would benefit from the efforts of multiple agencies working together.
OMB-led agency-by-agency annual budget development process (using the example of FY 2024)
Step 1: In January or February 2022, the OMB sends overall budget guidance to agencies based on prior-year budgets.
Step 2: Agencies develop initial program-specific budget lines and submit them back to the OMB for review in August or September 2022.
Step 3: In November 2022, the OMB reviews agencies’ budgets and sends them revised budgets, in what’s known as the “budget pass-back,” with questions, suggestions, and directions for final review; agencies then respond to OMB questions and send the final budget to OMB for approval.
Step 5: The OMB approves the president’s budget request in December 2022 or January 2023 and prepares the budget for transmittal to Congress in February 2023.
April to June: Incorporate the USGCRP’s priorities into agency budgets. Based on the SGCR priorities identified earlier in the year and the high-level guidance set forth by the OSTP and the OMB in their joint memorandum, agencies should incorporate those priorities into their budget requests.
July to August: The OSTP and the OMB review USGCRP activities. The SGCR produces a set of cross-agency climate science research activities—which are translations of the high-level priorities and could be, for example, new or increased resourcing to specific programs and/or projects—for the OSTP and the OMB to review. This is a formal review led by the OMB and the OSTP, with the USGCRP agencies presenting an integrated climate science research budget. It is possible that some of the proposed activities will not make it through this process. Once the review is completed, the funding requests for the approved activities are fenced in the OMB budget process—and thus cannot be allocated by the relevant agency to fund other activities. Because this may not be immediately popular with agency heads, it is important that this effort has the full backing of OMB and OSTP leadership and the president.
September to November: Agencies include priority USGCRP activities in the president’s budget. Priority USGCRP activities are supported in the agency budgets that are sent to the OMB, which are subsequently rolled into the president’s budget request to Congress early the following year. Since there is no equivalent USGCRP coordination process in Congress, it is incumbent upon the USGCRP principals to create a summary of the USGCRP priorities so that the various congressional committees will know where these investments are in the budget they oversee. In the early days of the USGCRP, this summary took the form of a short supplement to the president’s budget, but it could also be incorporated into the budget itself.
Coordinating basic climate research investments across the USGCRP’s 13 member agencies is no small task, but Congress recognized the importance of doing just that when it created the program in 1990. The $2.4 billion that the federal government spends annually on climate science already pays dividends to Americans confronting a new climate reality and its impacts on their daily lives. More funding is needed to realize fully the Biden administration’s ambitious climate policies. Making a few small adjustments to the annual federal budget process would maximize the benefits of the U.S. climate science enterprise by giving decision-makers the information they need to plan for and react to local climate change impacts. First, the OSTP and the OMB need to release their research and development priorities to agencies early in the calendar year so agencies can respond appropriately and make sure the priorities are reflected in their budget requests. Second, the White House must empower the USGCRP to reassume its congressionally authorized role leading the cross-cutting climate science budget process.
Science is one of the most important tools available to inform policy priorities, and the federal budget is one of the most important tools available through which those policy priorities can be addressed. Optimizing the federal climate science budget process and timeline will help advance science in and necessary funding for the Biden administration’s climate agenda.
Bianca Majumder is a policy analyst for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress, focusing on climate policy. David Reidmiller is the director of the Climate Center at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
The authors would like to thank the following people for their valuable contributions to this column: Kelly Kryc, former senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center; Jack Fellows, director emeritus of the Climate Change Science Institute; and Meghan Miller.
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