Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

NEON Inc.

NSF fires managers of troubled NEON ecology project

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to look for a new organization to build its National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON) in hopes of saving the troubled project.

“NSF… has minimal confidence in NEON Inc’s ability to manage the remaining construction and initial operations of the NEON project,” the head of NSF’s biology directorate, James Olds, wrote today to the Boulder, Colorado-based organization that has managed the project since its inception in 2007. In August, NSF decided to shrink the size and scope of the $434-million facility after discovering that it was running $80 million over budget and a year behind schedule. A month later Olds told a congressional science panel that it had asked NEON Inc. to submit a new management plan by 1 December.

That plan projected additional costs and a further delay of 2 years, according to NSF’s letter. In response, NSF has decided to find someone else to do the job. “Responsible stewardship by NSF requires the immediate pursuit of management options under an expected new award for construction and commissioning,” Olds wrote to James Collins, chairman of NEON Inc.’s board of directors, and Eugene Kelly, its interim CEO. “NSF is dedicated to ensuring that further re-scoping will not occur,” Olds added.

NEON Inc. was created to build and operate NEON, which will monitor environmental changes at dozens of sites across the United States representing 20 different ecosystems. But its inexperience created insurmountable problems that NSF is hoping to avoid the next time around.

“Despite all the questions we asked, in retrospect there were things we could have done better,” says Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chairman of NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, and head of an ad hoc task force formed after the recent descoping to monitor the project. “We’ll be looking for a company experienced in managing a large and complicated project.”

The chairman of the congressional committee that has been monitoring NEON warned NSF officials today that it will hold their feet to the fire. “Now that NSF has decided to terminate its contract with NEON Inc., NSF must find a competent partner to complete the project,” Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) declared in a statement to ScienceInsider. “This unfortunately must include downscaling the project to offset the $80 million cost overrun that has been left behind.  In order to regain the confidence of American taxpayers, NSF must ensure that NEON is completed on budget and also must take steps to prevent similar problems in future construction projects.”

An advisory committee to NSF’s biology directorate recently reaffirmed NEON’s value to the community and told NSF officials that the project should not be further descoped. “They drew a line in the sand and said this is as far as you can go,” Droegemeier says.

NSF expects to complete a new cost estimate for the project by next spring. It has no timetable for choosing a new contractor to manage the project, which NEON Inc. officials had hoped to complete by the end of 2017.

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