The response of the coral reef scientific community to the present global crisis in coral reefs is here compared with response times and response patterns of scientists in two previous international environmental crises: eutrophication of the Great Lakes and acid rain in the Northen Hemisphere. In both these previous crises, less than a decade passed from first appreciation of the problem to development of identification/evaluation/mitigation frameworks that were useful in a policy context. Key elements were avoidance of arguments over methods, genuinely multidisciplinary teams, and the presence of respected, technically trained managers. By contrast, twenty years after identification of the major stresses on reefs and description of the major monitoring strategies, there is no process–response model in place, in any country, equivalent to those produced in response to eutrophication of the Great Lakes or acid rain. Reasons for this failure include, but are not limited to: dominance by one field of science, biology; lack of competent scientific managers; and emphasis on monitoring programmes, with no clear idea how the results will be used.