A collection tower at one of the 81 National Ecological Observatory Network sites that will be gathering environmental data for decades.

Trevor Frost

After outcry, Battelle reinstates science panel at ecological observatory

The contractor running a major U.S. ecological research facility has reversed its decision to disband a scientific advisory panel. The move had drawn fierce criticism from researchers.

Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus-based nonprofit that manages the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for the National Science Foundation (NSF), said today it will reinstate the project’s Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). Batelle had dissolved the panel last week, hours after NEON’s chief scientist, Sharon Collinge, resigned. Collinge acted after Battelle fired two senior NEON managers without her knowledge and consent.

A Battelle official apologized today to STEAC’s 20 members and invited them to meet with the project’s acting chief scientist, Eugene Kelly. “My decision to dissolve the STEAC was based on my erroneous assumption that such advisory bodies were routinely reconstituted at the change of leadership of NSF large facilities,” Michael Kuhlman, Battelle’s chief scientist, explained in an email to the researchers, several of whom had threatened to resign in support of Collinge. “That was incorrect, and I accept full responsibility for my error.”

Travis Huxman, chair of STEAC and a plant physiologist at the University of California, Irvine, sees the reinstatement as an important step as the 81-site facility, based in Boulder, Colorado, moves from construction to operations. On 14 January, he and other former STEAC members had written to Battelle and NSF, urging the reinstatement of the panel.

“It’s rare that I complain and that something good comes from it,” Huxman says. But he’s pleased. “Our goal is to preserve the community’s voice in this important project. And I think this [email] is what the members were looking for.”

Huxman responded immediately to Kuhlman, writing that panel members “are committed to work with you to make NEON a success.” STEAC’s next meeting was scheduled for April, and Huxman says he hopes to stick to that schedule.