NSF’s New Research Funding Solicitation – “Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction Using Earth System Models” – A Mix Of Scientifically Robust And Flawed Goals

Just before Christmas, The National Science Foundation released a request for proposals, which I have reproduced below.  I will insert comments on what I see as the failure of portions of this solicitition to recognize the limitations of multi-decadal climate model predictions that I have posted on; e.g. see

The Huge Waste Of Research Money In Providing Multi-Decadal Climate Projections For The New IPCC Report

I also comment on the positive aspects of this NSF solicitation.

Judy Curry has posted a directly relevant contribution to this issue titled

Reducing the future to climate

which is based on a  new paper by Mike Hulme, which was pointed out by Hans von Storch and BishopHill.

Judy’s post is worth reading. With respect to my post on the NSF solicitation, the following excerpts from Mike Hulme’s article is directly relevant

“…at the beginning of a new century with heightening anxieties about changes in climate, the idea that climate can determine the fate of people and society has re-emerged in the form of ‘climate reductionism’…………the new climate reductionism is driven by the hegemony exercised by the predictive natural sciences over contingent, imaginative and humanistic accounts of social life and visions of the future. It is a hegemony which lends disproportionate power in political and social discourse to model-based descriptions of putative future climates.”

Following is the NSF solicitation letter and the announcement Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction using Earth System Models. After that is a more detailed program description of this solicitation. The later description is more scientfically well presented, which suggests the summary announcment was written by a different person. I have comments embedded in the text for both.

Date: Thu, 22 Dec 2011 16:31:09 -0500 From: GEO AGS National Science Foundation <geoagsnsf@NSF.GOV> To: AS-AGS@LISTSERV.NSF.GOV Subject: Solicitation update from NSF

Dear Colleagues,

The Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences at NSF would like to bring to your attention a recent solicitation release:  Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction using Earth System Models (EaSM) <http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503399&org=NSF&sel_org= NSF&from=fund> .  This is the second in a series of EaSM solicitations. NSF continues to partner with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) on the EaSM program.  Specific areas of emphasis have changed from the first EaSM solicitation, so we do encourage you to read the solicitation carefully.

Thank you very much.

Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences

Directorate for Geosciences

National Science Foundation

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503399&org=NSF&sel_org=

PROGRAM GUIDELINES
DUE DATES

Full Proposal Deadline Date:  April 20, 2012

SYNOPSIS

The consequences of climate variability and change are becoming more immediate and profound than previously anticipated.

My Comment:   The solicitation fails to discriminate the difference between climate variability and change.  They also seem to imply that the profound effects are from climate, and not from due to societal changes.

The solicitation continues

Important impacts have highlighted that climate variability and change can have significant effects on decadal and shorter time scales, with significant consequences for plant, animal, human, and physical systems.  Such aspects include the onset of prolonged droughts on several continents, increased frequency of floods, loss of agricultural and forest productivity, degraded ocean and permafrost ecosystems, global sea level rise and the rapid retreat of ice sheets and glaciers, loss of Arctic sea ice, and changes in ocean currents.

My Comment:  This selection of environmental events is a hodgepodge of threats.  There is no evidence that droughts or floods, as defined from a meteorological perspective, have become more common.  They do not define what is meant by the loss of agricultural and forest productivity, and  of degraded ocean and permafrost ecosystems,  due to climate.  Also what is meant by the rapid retreat of ice sheets?  If they mean Arctic sea ice, they are correct, but the term “ice sheet” is usually applied to continental ice coverage (such as Greenland and Antarctica) and I am not aware of a rapid decrease in their areal coverage.  Their claim of changes in ocean currents is also a puzzle.

Quite frankly, this description was not written in a scientifically robust manner.

Their solicitation continues

The EaSM funding opportunity enables interagency cooperation on one of the most pressing problems of the millennium: climate change, how it is likely to affect our world, and how we can plan for its consequences. It allows the partner agencies — National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) — to combine resources to identify and fund the most meritorious and highest-impact projects that support their respective missions, while eliminating duplication of effort and fostering collaboration between agencies and the investigators they support.

My Comment:   The statement that climate is one of “the most pressing problems of the millennium” is not only a gross overstatement, but is unnecessary in justifying an improved understanding of the climate system.  To report in an NSF document that climate is one of the most pressing problems of the next 1000 years, and that models are the tool to assess this issue, clearly documents Mike Hulme’s conclusion that

“the hegemony exercised by the predictive natural sciences over contingent, imaginative and humanistic accounts of social life and visions of the future……..lends disproportionate power in political and social discourse to model-based descriptions of putative future climates.”

The NSF fails to document their rationale for this extreme claim.

The solicitation continues

This interdisciplinary scientific challenge calls for the development and application of next-generation Earth System Models that include coupled and interactive representations of such things as ocean and atmospheric currents, human activities, agricultural working lands and forests, urban environments, biogeochemistry, atmospheric chemistry,  the water cycle and land ice.  This solicitation seeks to attract scientists from the disciplines of geosciences, social sciences, agricultural and biological sciences, mathematics and statistics, physics, and chemistry. Successful proposals will develop intellectual excitement in the participating disciplinary communities and engage diverse interdisciplinary teams with sufficient breadth to achieve the scientific objectives. We encourage proposals that have strong broader impacts, including public access to data and other research products of general interest, as well as educational, diversity, or societal impacts.

My Comment:     I am supportive of using the Earth System models and of interdisciplinary groups to develop an improved understanding of climate system processes.  However, these studies need to be closely linked to real world observational comparisons. Moreover, until the models can show predictive skill of climate variability on yearly and decadal time scales, they should not be provided to the impact community as “reliable” predictions.

The solicitation continues

The long-term goals of this solicitation are to improve on and extend current Earth System modeling capabilities to:

1. Achieve comprehensive, reliable global and regional predictions of decadal climate variability and change through advanced understanding of the coupled interactive physical, chemical, biological, and human processes that drive the climate system.

My Comment:  This should, more appropriately, be written

ASSESS the global and regional PREDICTABILITY of decadal climate variability and change through advanced understanding of the coupled interactive physical, chemical, biological, and human processes that drive the climate system.

The NSF list of goals continues

2. Quantify the impacts of climate variability and change on natural and human systems, and identify and quantify feedback loops.

3. Maximize the utility of available observational and model data for impact, vulnerability/resilience, and risk assessments through up/downscaling activities and uncertainty characterization.

4. Effectively translate climate predictions and associated uncertainties into the scientific basis for policy and management decisions related to human interventions and adaptation to the projected impacts of climate change.

My Comment: There is no way one can assess the impacts of climate variability and change in the coming decades until the Earth system models can show skill in hindcast model runs at predicting climate changeThe use of multi-decadal global model predictions of the coming decades to provide predictions of changes in climate statistics to the impacts community , and to claim they are skillful, is a dishonest presentation of that information.

The solicitation continues

The following are specific areas of interest to the funding agencies for EaSM 2: (i) Research  that has the potential to dramatically improve predictive capabilities; (ii) Prediction and attribution studies; (iii) Research  that addresses critical issues linking relevant Earth system processes over a variety of spatial and temporal scales; (iv) Research that examines the relationships between climate variability and change to human and natural environments from the human perspective; (v) Development and applications of metrics, methods, and tools for testing and evaluating climate and climate impact predictions and their uncertainty characterization.

These subareas of particular interest are described in greater detail below under Program Description:  Areas of interest.
Anticipated Type of Award: Standard Grant or Continuing Grant
Estimated Number of Awards: 7 to 12 depending on the mix and size of projects submitted. This estimate is based on the total for all funding sources (NSF, USDA,
DOE) combined.

Awards are expected to be in the range of $300,000 to $1,000,000 per year.

Budgets are to be no more than $3M, $4M and $5M, for 3-year, 4-year, and 5-year projects, respectively. The budget should
accurately reflect the effort of all parties, as detailed in the budget justification.

Anticipated Funding Amount:$35,000,000 to $39,000,000 in FY 2012 and FY 2013 pending availability of funds.

My Comment:    This solicitation summary fails to identify the assessment of predictive skill on decadal time scales as a major prerequisite. Moreover, it seems to imply that by just running these Earth System models for the coming decades, we can achieve “reliable” forecasts of changes in climate statistics to provide to the impacts community.  Any research that is funded for such forecasts is wasted in my view unless they can show skill in hindcast predictions of CHANGES in regional and local climate statistics.

The more detailed program description, which is more scientifically robust (at least in part) than the summary text listed above,  includes the text [highlight added]

Climate prediction at time scales of several decades and shorter is a scientific challenge that underscores the complexity of the Earth’s natural and human systems while also highlighting the many unknowns that shape our climate and its impacts. These include natural drivers of climate variability; the transient sensitivity of the climate system to radiative forcing; cloud feedbacks; short-lived greenhouse gases such as ozone and methane, and particles affecting the Earth’s albedo such as soot and other aerosols; the roles of oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems, land use, and biogeochemical cycles; and feedbacks imposed by human response to climate change. The nonlinear nature of these interactions greatly increases the complexity of the problem.

My Comment: This is a welcome recognition of the multi-faceted character of the climate system that we summarized in our paper

Pielke Sr., R., K.  Beven, G. Brasseur, J. Calvert, M. Chahine, R. Dickerson, D.  Entekhabi, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, H. Gupta, V. Gupta, W. Krajewski, E.  Philip Krider, W. K.M. Lau, J. McDonnell,  W. Rossow,  J. Schaake, J.  Smith, S. Sorooshian,  and E. Wood, 2009: Climate change: The need to consider human forcings besides greenhouse gases.   Eos, Vol. 90, No. 45, 10 November 2009, 413. Copyright (2009) American   Geophysical Union.

The program descripti0n continues

In order to plan for future infrastructure, stakeholders from various application sectors (e.g. agriculture, energy, and the water resources community) need information about the likely climate trajectory for the next 5-30 years. However, the inherent natural variability of climate can mask both long-term trends and changes in system responses due to changes in driving forces, such as anthropogenic forcing. It is thus crucial to be able to make better decadal time scale predictions that account for natural variability.

My Comment: 

The solicitation fails to identify who these stakeholders are.  Indeed, this is why a bottom-up, resource-based approach is needed in order to identify the stakeholders and what are their critical threats, as we discuss in our paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2011: Dealing  with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based  vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and  Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press.

In fact, this is an excellent example of

the hegemony exercised by the predictive natural sciences over contingent, imaginative and humanistic accounts of social life and visions of the future

discussed by Mike Hulme.

The solicitation continues

Additional challenges are faced in the development and application of the models themselves. These include scaling, model parameterization, uncertainty quantification, model validation, more efficient algorithms, and realistic representation of underlying biogeochemical, physical, chemical, agricultural, ecological, and socioeconomic processes.

Further problems arise in model initialization and climate change attribution when the sparseness and heterogeneity of available data is considered. Mathematical and statistical techniques are needed to optimize the merging of available data towards the development of equilibrium climate states for model initialization. As these many issues are addressed, the new knowledge generated becomes the basis for continuing improvements in the reliability of future, more complete versions of Earth System Models.

Scientific challenges such as these cannot be met in isolation. Diverse teams of researchers involved in parallel, interdisciplinary, and complementary activities are required to advance the field of Earth System Modeling. Cyberinfrastructure should be utilized to support the development, growth, and effectiveness of collaborating teams while also supplying shared compute and data platforms to a wide range of users of climate and climate impact predictions and information. It is anticipated that projects funded by EaSM will yield more than incremental results in individual models, but instead will transform the conduct of climate science, greatly increasing the impact of research outcomes.

My Comment;  The solicitation fails to identify what are their “benchmarks” for this transformation of climate science.

The funds available are presented in the following text from the solicitation

Proposals should describe collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts that advance the state of Earth System Modeling on regional and decadal scales. Proposers should clearly state how their efforts contribute to the overall long-term goals of the program and will have broad interdisciplinary impacts. Where appropriate, investigators are encouraged to incorporate methods and metrics that assess the reliability of predictions. It is anticipated that EaSM projects will be 3 to 5 years in duration. The scope of proposals should justify total budgets in the range of $300,000 to $1,000,000 per year.

The solicitation continues

Areas of Interest:

This solicitation is intended to support development of reliable regional and decadal climate predictions that take into account the influences of living systems and are essential for projecting how living systems might adapt to climate change and its consequences for their physical environment.These predictions are necessary for well-informed human adaptation to climate change in planning future infrastructure, ensuring adequate food and water supplies, and developing sound, informed policy and stewardship for our natural and managed ecosystems.

My Comment:  This ambitious overarching theme ignores discussing how  the “reliable regional and decadal climate predictions” are shown to have forecast skill!  Moreover, such predictions are not “necessary for well-informed human adaptation to climate change….”. This is yet another example in the solicitation of Mike Hulme’s conclusion that

 “….climate can determine the fate of people and society has re-emerged in the form of ‘climate reductionism’.

The solicitation continues

Examples of areas of interest are (the ordering does not imply priority):

Research into predictability of the climate system at times scales of several decades and shorter and on regional spatial scales. Studies may include, for example: predictability of the statistics of extreme events, the roles of climate data assimilation and initialization, and model multi-ensemble methods and error propagation control. Relevant to this process is a better understanding of how climate information is conveyed to the public, how it is perceived, and how decisions are made as a result.

My Comment:  This is an excellent research focus and fits with my post

The Difference Between Prediction and Predictability – Recommendations For Research Funding Related to These Distinctly Different Concepts

The solicitation continues

Prediction and attribution studies to determine whether observed changes in frequency and intensity of extreme weather and climate events, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes and multi-year heat waves covering large hemispheric regions, are primarily related to human activities driving long-term trends, or are manifestations of shorter term natural drivers of climate variability. Studies may include, for example: the identification, evaluation, and understanding of low frequency natural modes of climate variability such as ENSO and multidecadal ocean variability, and how these may change in a changing climate; and the roles of short-lived radiative forcing, such as aerosols and clouds, methane, ozone, and decadal solar variability.

Research on methods of coupling different elements of the earth system to account for multi-scale interactions. Studies  may include, for example: coupling between system components that work at widely different scales of time or space (such as global atmospheric circulation, hydrologic systems, and human systems), upscaling local and regional information to inform regional and global models, and downscaling global and regional model predictions in order to inform regional and local applications.

My Comment:   The investigation of spatial interactions is a worthwhile goal.  However, the one-way downscaling from the decadal global model predictions for regional impacts is not a robust approach, as we discuss in our paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2011: Dealing  with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based  vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and  Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press.

and in a new contribution that will appear in EOS later this month (and I will provide the url when it appears as well as announce on my weblog)

Pielke Sr., R.A., and R.L. Wilby, 2012: Regional climate downscaling – what’s the point? Eos Forum, inpress

The solicitation continues

Research that examines the relationships between climate variability and change to human and natural environments from the human perspective. Studies may include, for example, linking physical conditions and societal activities at relevant regional scales; incorporating social system models into climate model outputs; enhancing understanding about human perception and cognition of climate variability and change through Earth System modeling outputs; visualizing model output appropriate for decision making; and adapting to a changing environment.

My Comment:  This is a worthwhile goal except it is focused on the Earth System model predictions as the overarching framework. This top-down approach requires skillful predictions of not just the real world climate statistics but also the CHANGES in the climate statistics on decadal time scales. Without this skill, there is no value-added beyond just using the historical, recent paleo-record and worst case sequence of observed climate statistics to provide climate information to the impacts community!

The solicitation continues

Development and applications of metrics, methods, and tools for testing, evaluating, and validating predictions of climate and of climate impacts, their uncertainty characterization, and error estimates. Studies may include, for example: methods to improve the perception, cognition and understanding of uncertainties and biases in results; analysis of paleoclimate and historical records to evaluate simulations and retrospective predictions for the past several decades; quantification of uncertainties; and related risk assessments.

My Comment:  This is a very good goal.  The focus on retrospective predictions must be the benchmark (and prerequisite) to assess the predictability of decadal climate model predictions.

My Summary:   The  NSF solicitation is a mix of scientifically robust goals and flawed approaches. The ultimate analysis will be with respect to i) what is actually funded and ii) what is achieved with this large funding.

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