Delivering Climate Services: Organizational Strategies and Approaches for Producing Useful Climate-Science Information

Published: 27th June 2018 15:27Last Updated: 27th June 2018 15:32
Garden Wall Weather Station in Glacier National Park, USA. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Garden Wall Weather Station in Glacier National Park, USA. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey


Despite numerous and widespread calls for more “useful” climate-science information to inform policy, most climate science is still produced in a way that is consistent with the “linear model” of research that favors pure basic research over other approaches, resulting in missed opportunities to link useful climate science with decision makers. To improve the ability to adapt to a changing climate, it is necessary to improve the linkages between the production and supply of climate-science information with users’ needs to ensure that the climate science is contextual, credible, trusted, and understood by the users.

This paper*, by Elizabeth C. McNie, reports on research that evaluated how three Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) programs produced useful climate information for improved decision support in a variety of sectors. It provides useful experience and insights for the design and delivery of climate services that enhance the use of climate information in decision-making.

These RISAs utilized several processes and approaches to produce useful climate information, including identifying users’ information needs; translating, communicating, and sharing knowledge; producing and situating social capital; building capacity in the user community to understand and utilize the climate-science information; and maintaining a flexible and nimble organization guided by strong leadership. This research indicates that the process of linking the production and supply of climate-science information with users’ demands is a complex, highly contextual social process that requires ample resources and time management, research agendas that are “end to end” and can respond to changing contexts, and organizational commitment to support “use-inspired” research. 

A summary of the method, the conclusions and key findings of the paper are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

This paper was originally published in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society (Volume 5, No. 1) in January 2013:

*Download the full paper from the right hand column.

Methods and Tools

This project examined programs managed through the Climate Program Office (CPO) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program:

  • The aim of the program is to provide integrated scientific assessments for place-based decision support related to climate variability for a variety of users and decision makers (henceforth called “stakeholders”) who work in areas of water management, public health, fisheries, hydropower production, forestry, natural hazards, agriculture, natural resources management, and other areas.
  • RISA research involves a variety of disciplines including climate, terrestrial ecosystem, hydrological, agricultural, civil engineering, economic, and human dimensions research undertaken by scientists and researchers (henceforth called “members”).
  • Every RISA program shares the aforementioned goals, yet each was designed individually with its own set of priorities, research agendas, and stakeholders.
  • Studying RISA programs offer ample opportunities to conduct robust case and cross-case comparisons between programs given similar institutional constraints but different context-sensitive approaches to fulfilling the RISA mission.

Lessons Learnt

The conclusions of this research can be summarised as follows:

  • RISAs exist to produce quality climate information for decision support, but they also function as quasi-experimental programs for testing various approaches for producing climate-science information and delivering climate-information products to a variety of decision makers in numerous domains.
  • Findings from this research indicate that producing useful climate information that satisfies users’ needs is a complex, highly contextual social process. Producing high-quality and credible natural, physical, and social-science information alone is insufficient to ensure the production of useful climate information for decision support.
  • This research clarifies the importance of the design and delivery of climate services, whereby adequate time and attention needs to be allocated to build relationships and tend to social systems.
  • Although focused on just three RISAs, this research confirms many previous findings, adds additional empirical research and understanding about the function of climate-service organizations, and develops several hypotheses than can be tested in future research.
  • This research also raises additional questions concerning how climate services should be evaluated and, more importantly, how climate information actually gets used in the policy process.
  • What is clear from the research is that significant questions still remain and additional research needs to be done to improve our use of qualitative and quantitative methods to evaluate the emerging field of climate services.

Key findings

Analysis found the necessary and most important processes and approaches that contributed to the coproduction of useful climate information to be:

1. Assessing users’ information needs:

  • RISAs determined what information to produce from both formal and informal needs assessments.
    • At the formal end, robust social science methods were deployed to determine users’ needs through focus groups, survey instruments, and individual stakeholder queries.
    • Less formally, some RISAs took advantage of opportunities when stakeholders were convened to pass out questionnaires and informal needs assessments.​
    • One RISA identified “big issues” or problems shared by many stakeholders or across sectors in order to guide research. At other times, members asked simply, “can they [the stakeholders] use this information to defend their decision to their bosses?”
  • Other external factors also shaped the climate research agendas. This included the availability of fiscal resources, which significantly influenced and in some cases constrained choices and alternatives for programmatic activities.

  • One factor that appeared consistent across the RISAs was the importance of a clear vision and mission guiding members’ decisions about research priorities. Understanding the “big picture” and the overarching purpose of each RISA guided research agendas.

2. Translating, communicating, and sharing knowledge:

  • RISA members determined how best to package and translate information through both formal and informal mechanisms.
    • Formally, some RISAs utilized social science research in order to answer fundamental questions about how stakeholders perceived information and how best to package and present the information. These efforts consisted of empirical studies, experiments, workshops, and survey instruments.​
  • RISAs learned that translating scientific material into simpler language was important in order to speak to a wide audience, but that in many instances it was also important to maintain the formal scientific language to reflect its peer-reviewed source.
    • Some stakeholders suggested that this connection added to the credibility of the information, particularly in cases where decision stakes were high or the information contested.
    • This work came at some price, however—for example, with an early Pacific ENSO Application Center product called the Rainfall Atlas. The original product was confusing to many stakeholders because it was presented in probabilistic terms using terciles. Communication and feedback from stakeholders led to the development of a “Historical Analog for the Atlas” that presented the information in more deterministic terms and in language and styles more easily understood by stakeholders.​
  • RISA Members needed to be flexible about the language they used in communicating their research, for example with the phrase “climate change.” Because of early stakeholder resistance to the phrase, many members used the phrase “climate variability” to avoid unnecessary political conflict or resistance from stakeholders.
    • Some members were criticized by peers as “selling out” to climate deniers, or even perpetuating misunderstandings about the gravity of climate change.
    • Given the long-range goals of the RISAs, however, members realized that in order to deliver useful information, they needed to tailor the information to suit the users’ context.​
  • One of the most important activities for RISA success was early, frequent, and iterative communication with stakeholders.

3. Producing and situating social capital:

  • Members universally discussed the importance of establishing relationships with their stakeholders based on trust and mutual respect. These relationships created the social capital that facilitated the successful creation, sharing, and integration of information that was useful, both in terms of the credibility of the information and its perceived legitimacy.
  • Social capital resided within the RISA organization or with individual members, but more often with both. In the Pacific Affiliated Islands, where trust was inversely correlated with stakeholders’ power and their access to resources, social capital was often grounded in an individual relationship with a member or affiliate of the Pacific RISA.​

4. Capacity building:

  • Creating and maintaining social capital was also necessary to support capacity-building efforts with stakeholders, particularly when their organizations found limited value in climate information, had not yet incorporated climate information into their operations, or had preconceived or inaccurate notions about climate science.
    • RISA Members spent time “pushing” climate information to stakeholders not only in the belief that such information could be useful, but also because they wanted to build stakeholders’ capacity to absorb, understand, and, at a later time, utilize the information.

“If we had waited for the demand [to arise], we would have been behind the curve.” “Undemanded” capacity-building often laid the ground for future information demands by stakeholders because they often “did not know that they needed the information.”​ - RISA member

  • Encouraging stakeholders to engage the material was challenging not only because of significant differences in knowledge about climate science, but also because of different mental models and paradigms about how the world operated.
    • The Pacific RISA spent a lot of time engaging in capacity-building activities, traveling to numerous islands, and educating stakeholders not only about how climate change affected various sectors of the economy and society but also about the basics of climate-change science.
    • The Pacific RISA’s activities were further complicated by the fact that their stakeholders spoke multiple languages, requiring multiple translations of educational material.​

5. Leadership and organisational design:

  • Strong leadership by senior scholars in climate science, climate impacts and adaptation, social sciences, or extensive programmatic development experience in climate services was a characteristic feature of the RISA programs.
    • Leadership proved critical during the start-up phases of the organizations for several reasons. Such leaders were “champions” both outside the organization (with academic departments and leaders in the host universities and with NOAA) and within it.​
    • Members articulated strong support for such leadership that helped foster a feeling of community in the organization due to the leaders’ “dedication,” “inspiration,” and “commitment to the cause.”
  • RISAs were fairly flat and decentralized organizations in which most members worked autonomously, making decisions independently, albeit collaboratively at times and within constraints of the organizational vision and mission.
    • Decentralization not only enabled members in all the RISAs to make their own decisions regarding what research to conduct but also, more importantly, members could respond quickly to changing contexts, issues, and windows of opportunities that arose.
    • Greater attention to record-keeping and institutionalizing some processes would be beneficial to RISAs’ long-term development, but not at the expense of maintaining organizational adaptability and nimbleness in responding to opportunities.
    • Decentralization enabled members to engage directly with stakeholders and respond in real time to demands, questions, concerns, or feedback.​

6. Cross-case comparisons:

  • Each of the three RISA programs studied for this project was created by different principal investigators (PIs) who focused on different resource problems based on different climatic conditions, and with significantly different resources available for program support.
    • While all were bound within the overall goal of producing place-based climate-science information for decision support, each program was organized and operated differently.
    • Together, these RISA programs shared many more characteristics than not, suggesting that the processes and approaches identified may be characteristics that are essential for operating successful climate-service organizations.​
  • The biggest difference between the programs concerns how they produced or otherwise acquired the climate information.
    • CIG and CLIMAS, both housed in major universities and supported with generous funding from NOAA and other sources, were the primary producers of the climate information, doing the work in-house or collaboratively with nonmember researchers.​
    • The Pacific RISA was the smallest of the three and operated with a very small budget. Fiscal constraints significantly limited its ability to have in-house researchers and members who specialized in physical and natural science research.
    • Acting as an information broker was an effective strategy for the Pacific RISA, although it also took significant time and resources, resulting in some obvious trade-offs.