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Global Research Needs a Unified Approach

FOR the United States, research into global environmental change has become a billion-dollar-a-year government-funded program. But the country may not be getting the knowledge it needs.

The program aims to understand what's happening to our planet well enough to predict significant environmental changes. It is supposed to give policymakers the insights they need to take action to cope with such changes. But in its latest assessment, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) warns that the program ``as currently structured ... will not be able to provide decisionmakers and natural resource managers with the information they will need to respond to global change.''

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The Bush administration launched the US Global Change Research Program in 1989. The federal government has spent some $3.7 billion on it since then. Its fiscal 1994 budget runs to around $1.026 billion.

The trouble with this massive effort is that it's lopsided, fragmented, and too narrowly focused. But it wouldn't take a lot more money or a wrenching restructuring to fix it.

The program's central element is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mission to Planet Earth. This uses a mix of space-based and ground-based observations to check up on our planet. Its chief element is a set of observational satellites called the Earth Observing System. NASA's share of the 1994 global-change budget is $921 million. Several other agencies in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior have pieces of the action.

But their budget shares are, respectively, only $67 million and $37.7 million.

OTA notes that NASA's ``space age'' program has drawn the lion's share of funding while ``potentially cost effective, but less glamorous programs outside NASA have languished.'' Yet it is this ``less glamorous'' kind of research that is needed to fill the scientific gaps.

For example, OTA suggests more emphasis on the detailed processes of environmental change. Research into the subarctic taiga by the universities of Alaska, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Duke University is a recent example. Taiga is a globe-girdling region with evergreen forests and marshy peat bogs. Changes in its seasonal warmth and moisture could make major changes in the way it absorbs and releases the climate-warming gases methane and carbon dioxide. It could be a major factor in any future global warming. Yet, as reported at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last month, scientists don't know whether it would enhance or retard that warming. Understanding this is essential to understanding global climate change.

A few tens of millions of dollars invested annually in learning more about the details of important environmental processes could pay big scientific dividends. OTA also suggests investing similar sums in an array of inexpensive satellites and instruments to build up a global-monitoring network to supplement what the ``more glamorous'' NASA system can do.

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The key to making the global-change research effort work is to have an integrated effort coordinated across all participating agencies with a continuing assessment of its effectiveness. It also should be administered and funded as a whole. Piecemeal funding has led to the overemphasis on the NASA program, OTA observes.

Congress and the Clinton administration should follow up the OTA recommendations. A relatively inexpensive reorientation would make it scientifically stronger and more productive.

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