A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

NSF/Neon Inc.

Report blames both contractor and NSF for blunders in building major ecological observatory

The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, hired an inexperienced contractor for a big job that was over its head and then failed to take steps when things started going wrong. That’s the conclusion of an independent review of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a troubled $433 million scientific facility under construction at dozens of sites across the United States.

Last December NSF fired the contractor, NEON Inc., citing a potential $80 million cost overrun and continued delays in completing the project. But NSF officials share the blame for those problems, James Abrahamson, an independent consultant hired by NSF to review the project, said this morning during a preliminary report to the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

“NEON Inc. was like a high school team trying to tackle a job that requires the skills of the NBA [National Basketball Association] or the NFL [National Football League],” said Abrahamson, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who managed the controversial Strategic Defense (“Star Wars”) Initiative during the Reagan administration. “Over a period of years they made progress. But they could no longer make up the time that they had left.”

In March NSF hired Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus to finish building and to operate NEON, which will monitor decades-long ecological and land-use changes on a continental scale. Battelle, a large nonprofit organization that manages several Department of Energy national laboratories, has 90 days to submit a detailed plan for how it will do that. But it has already announced new leadership for the project and installed a team at the project’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.

Although Abrahamson didn’t mention Battelle by name, his comments made it clear he sees the new contractor as a big step up in quality.

“The real problem with NEON Inc. is that the team was very small,” he told the board. “It had some people with good resumes, but the team had no record that could be referenced, and no history of working together. The team demonstrated that it could not initially, or even later, overcome the project’s many issues and problems and carry out its mission within the approved budget. Worse, the team could not learn over time and become an integrated, dedicated, and synergistic team.”

NSF’s oversight committee in the U.S. House of Representatives has grilled agency officials repeatedly on how it managed the project, using as fodder a series of critical reports from the NSF Inspector General, the agency’s internal financial watchdog. NSF Director France Córdova hired Abrahamson last fall to find the “root causes” of those problems, and his report this morning also highlighted the shortcomings of NSF management.

 “NSF did not have sufficient history in the early stages of this project for integrating NSF talent and procedures,” he told the board in a public session before it continued the discussion behind closed doors. “As a result, it was unable to fully realize all of the unknown schedule and cost impacts of the project that were incurring delays and generating management challenges.”

Abrahamson said he thinks NSF has turned a corner by beefing up its own management team, and he’s optimistic about the project’s future. “The changes will allow NSF to assess the problems, decide quickly on the best course of action to resolve it, and implement a solution that has a very high probability of remaining within the project’s existing budget and schedule,” he said.

The board also heard the final report from an internal task force it created last fall to keep a closer eye on NEON. The chairman, retiring board member Kelvin Droegemeier of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, pointed to problems within both NSF and the science board that contributed to NEON’s woes.

The agency needs to be more receptive to “hearing bad news,” Droegemeier said, as well as having enough people on staff with the knowledge of building large facilities to recognize when a problem exists. The board also needs to be more engaged, he added. “It’s not that the board wasn’t paying attention,” said Droegemeier, a professor of meteorology and vice president for research. “We had lots of questions. But we were distracted and may not have followed through. And we may not have had the expertise to understand such issues as earned value management.”

Abrahamson said he’s still polishing his report, and an NSF spokesperson said it was premature to comment on its contents. In the meantime, however, Droegemeier says that NEON remains on track. “It’s a lot like Apollo 13,” he told his colleagues. “It wasn’t a failure. In many respects, the lessons learned will make NSF stronger and NEON more successful.”