National Ecological Observatory Network
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National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a large facility project operated by Battelle and funded by the National Science Foundation. Once in full operations, NEON will gather and provide long-term, standardized data on ecological responses of the biosphere to changes in land use and climate, and on feedback with the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. NEON will be a continental-scale research platform for understanding how and why our ecosystems are changing.
Battelle, an independent, nonprofit research and development organization, was selected by the National Science Foundation to complete the construction, commissioning and the initial operations of NEON.
The National Science Foundation, the National Science Board and Congress approved funding for NEON in 2011. Funding came from the National Science Foundation. NEON itself is not a funding agency.
NEON, Inc. was the entity in charge of running the NEON project when it first began, but on December 11, 2015, the NSF terminated the NEON, Inc. contract. The NSF conducted a search for a new company to complete the project through the first several months of 2016. In March 2016, Battelle was chosen to complete the construction of the NEON field sites and infrastructure needed to gather data from those sites.
Vision and Mission
The Vision for NEON 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'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. Data will be provided as meaningful information and learning tools that engage many audiences, including members of underserved communities, and promote broad ecological literacy.
Controversy and Firing of NEON, Inc. from the Project
Beginning in 2011, NEON, Inc., the entity in charge of initially running the NEON project, was audited by the Defense Contract Audit Agency on behalf of the National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General. Auditor-in-Charge J. Kirk McGill determined that NEON, Inc. had poor control over taxpayer funds and could easily go over budget with little or no warning. He also found that NEON, Inc. had spent taxpayer funds on illegal expenditures including alcohol, lobbying, parties, and luxury travel. When McGill's findings were not addressed by senior DCAA management, he disclosed the matter directly to Congress.
On December 3, 2014 a hearing on the matter was held before the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. A second hearing was held on February 3, 2015. In April 2015 the Office of Management and Budget ordered all departments and agencies not to use "management fees" to pay for illegal expenditures. On September 18, 2015, a third hearing was held. The Committee ultimately substantiated McGill's allegations towards NEON, Inc. and on December 11, 2015, NEON, Inc. was fired from the project. This represents one of the largest Federal agreement terminations for cause in history. The NSF chose the Battelle in March 2016 to complete the construction of the Observatory in place of NEON, Inc.
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 fires managers of troubled NEON ecology project". news.sciencemag.org. Retrieved 2016-01-06.
- Mervis, Jeffrey. "NSF picks Battelle to run NEON". Science Mag. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 7 April 2016.
- NSF Synopsis for NEON
- McGill, J. Kirk (2014-04-27), English: J. Kirk McGill's April 27, 2014 Whistleblower Disclosure (PDF), retrieved 2016-01-06
- "Full Committee Hearing - Review of the Results of Two Audits of the National Ecological Observatory Network". Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Retrieved 2016-01-06.
- "Subcommittee on Research and Technology and Subcommittee on Oversight Hearing: NEON Warning Signs: Examining the Management of the National Ecological Observatory Network". Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Retrieved 2016-01-06.
- 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