National Ecological Observatory Network
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National Ecological Observatory Network, Inc. (NEON, Inc.) is an independent 501(c)3 corporation in the United States created to manage large-scale ecological observing systems and experiments on behalf of the scientific community. NEON is an observatory managed by NEON, Inc. and is funded by the National Science Foundation. NEON itself is not a funding agency.
NEON, Inc. recently completed a design review process for NEON. In late July 2011, the National Science Foundation awarded NEON, Inc. funding to being construction on the NEON project The construction phase is expected to last five to seven years, and NEON is expected to begin full operation in 2016 or later.
Vision and Mission
The Vision of NEON, Inc. is to guide global understanding and decisions in a changing environment with scientific information about continental-scale ecology through integrated observations, experiments and forecasts.
NEON, Inc.’s Mission is to design, implement, and operate the first and foremost integrated continental‐scale scientific infrastructure to enable research, discovery and education about ecological change.
NEON will create a new national observatory network to collect ecological and climatic observations across the continental United States, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The observatory will be the first of its kind designed to detect and enable forecasting of ecological change at continental scales over multiple decades. NEON has partitioned the United States into 20 eco-climatic domains, each of which represents different regions of vegetation, landforms, climate, and ecosystem performance. Data will be collected by field technicians and passive sensors at strategically selected sites within each domain and synthesized into information products that can be used to describe changes in the nation's ecosystem through space and time. NEON data products will be freely available via a web portal.
Purpose and Function
The data NEON collects are defined by a series of Grand Challenges, as identified by the National Research Council at the request of the National Science Foundation. The National Research Council established a committee to evaluate the major ecological, environmental, and national concerns that require a continental-scale observatory, and it identified the following Environmental Grand Challenges:
- Biogeochemistry: The study of how chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes combine to create the natural environment.
- Biodiversity: The full range of life forms on earth, or in a particular region.
- Climate change: A significant long-term change in the kind of weather we would expect based on averages calculated from climate data.
- Ecohydrology: The study of how organisms interact with their environment and with the constant movement of water.
- Infectious Diseases: Diseases spread by viruses, parasites, and bacteria that are sometimes transmitted to people by animals, birds, and insects.
- Land Use: The many ways that people change the natural landscape and environment, such as by building cities, cutting down forests, or planting crops.
- Invasive Species: Plants and organisms that overpopulate a particular place, or species that move into areas they haven’t lived in before.
Thus, the data and observations that NEON collects will focus on how land use, climate change and invasive species affect biodiversity, disease ecology, and ecosystem services. Obtaining integrated data on these relationships over a long-term period is crucial to improving forecast models and resource management for environmental change.
The National Science Foundation's vision for NEON is described as:
"A continental scale research instrument consisting of geographically distributed infrastructure, networked via state-of-the-art communications. Cutting-edge lab and field instrumentation, site-based experimental infrastructure, natural history archive facilities and/or computational, analytical and modeling capabilities, linked via a computational network will comprise NEON. NEON will transform ecological research by enabling studies on major environmental challenges at regional to continental scales. Scientists and engineers will use NEON to conduct real-time ecological studies spanning all levels of biological organization and temporal and geographical scales. NSF disciplinary and multi-disciplinary programs will support NEON research projects and educational activities. Data from standard measurements made using NEON will be publicly available.” (NSF 04549, 2004)
- How will ecosystems and their components respond to changes in natural- and human-induced forcings such as climate, land use, and invasive species across a range of spatial and temporal scales? And, what is the pace and pattern of the responses?
- How do the internal responses and feedbacks of biogeochemistry, biodiversity, hydroecology, and biotic structure and function interact with changes in climate, land use, and invasive species? And, how do these feedbacks vary with ecological context and spatial and temporal scales?
The data and information products that NEON collects and provides will be readily available to scientists, educators, students, decision makers and the public to use to understand and address ecological questions and issues. NEON's educational team will translate these data into meaningful information and learning tools that engage many audiences, including members of underserved communities, and promote broad ecological literacy.
In September 2014 the Washington Post reported that Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent two separate letters to NSF and NEON, Inc. inquiring about NEON’s use of taxpayer funds for specific purchases, out of a specific pot of money dedicated to unallowable costs, called “management fee”. The crux of the issue centers on whether management fee, approved by Federal Agencies for nonprofits, can be used for unallowable costs and is it in fact, a discretionary private funding after the award of a Grant and Cooperative Agreement. The long standing practice of awarding management fee, which was considered discretionary once awarded, used for those costs that are unallowable, is now being challenged. By contrast, "for profit" companies have no such issue on the discretion as to the way that they spend profit they earn, which includes an interest in their sustainability, creating a future reserve, and to promote their outreach or business development. Historically, a GAO report submitted to Congress in 1982, urged Congress to provide guidelines for nonprofit management fee, but no uniform guidelines were ever implemented by Congress, which now creates the vortex of the controversy. In addition, an earlier 1962 report to President Kennedy from the Bureau of Budget Director, Robert Bell, reporting on Government Research and Development (Bell Report) urged that a management fee be provided (typically 1 to 2% of the total award value) to nonprofit organizations as a reserve for their survival and to provide organizational sustainability in order to preserve their mission of serving society. Under this historical perspective, the draft audit report by the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) on behalf of the Office of the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation raised questions about the use of management fee for unallowable costs, which it was originally intended to cover. The crux of the issue of management fee versus allowability of costs, is whether management fee, is really a cost defined under OMB A-122 or if it is a discretionary fee for use by the nonprofit to provide for its organizational sustainability. Is management fee, a cost that can be determined as allowable or unallowable under the said cost principles for Nonprofit Organizations?[clarification needed] A whistleblower at DCAA speculated that the ecological research observatory was going to be protected by a "whitewash" of the initial audit findings, which suggests that the National Science Foundation approved Federal funds being used for unallowable costs by approving management fee. DCAA confirmed to the Post that government regulations put no restrictions on the company’s use of management fees, so the DCAA will not disallow the costs in question. Due to lack of specific legislative guidance, this controversy may motivate Congress to provide the legislation to provide uniform guidelines, that may affect the financial status of many nonprofits.[improper synthesis?] The final audit has not yet been released.
Relevant NEON project documents are available at NEON's document archive, including science design documents, the Integrated Science and Education Plan (ISEP) and the Networking and Informatics Baseline Design (NIBD).
- NSF press release 11-157,"NSF Awards Construction Funding to National Ecological Observatory Network".
- NSF Synopsis for NEON
- NEON official website
- 6 minute overview video about NEON
- Report in the journal Nature on NEON status and planning. (purchase required)
- Free summary of the above Nature report.
- Neon: Addressing the Nation's Environmental Challenges by the Board of Life Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences, published 2003