Ecologists take vegetation measurements in 2018 at NEON’s Toolik Lake site in northern Alaska.

THOMAS COLBY WRIGHT

NEON ecological laboratory at risk, fired advisers warn NSF after shake-up

The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a half-billion-dollar facility funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), hopes to revolutionize ecology by collecting an unprecedented amount of data about long-term environmental changes across North America. But as NEON prepares to begin full operations, an abrupt leadership shake-up threatens to alienate the scientists who will be using those data and, thus, are essential to its success.

On 8 January, Sharon Collinge, NEON’s chief scientist and principal investigator, resigned 4 days after Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages the network, fired two senior managers without her knowledge or consent. Within hours of Collinge’s resignation, Battelle dissolved NEON’s 20-member technical advisory committee, heading off a possible mass resignation of panel members opposed to Battelle’s actions. The rapid-fire developments came after years of cost overruns, construction delays, and debate over the project’s scientific merits and left many researchers bewildered and concerned.

Battelle “just burned some of the most prominent ecologists in the country,” says Ankur Desai, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who served on NEON’s now disbanded Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). “This has put the project at massive risk.” He and other former STEAC members want the advisory panel reinstated and its role strengthened. Disbanding it “leaves NEON open to missteps and … is breeding mistrust in the user community,” they wrote in a 14 January letter to Battelle executives and NSF leadership. (Read the letter.)

The upheaval is NEON’s latest self-inflicted wound. First proposed by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell in 2000, the project has chewed up half a dozen scientific directors—Collinge lasted less than a year—ensnared two contractors, prompted a congressional inquiry over spending and management practices, and generated a seemingly endless stream of critical reviews by outside experts. Many ecologists also worry that NEON’s $65-million-a-year operating budget will reduce the NSF funding available for ecological research that doesn’t rely on data from the 81-site facility, which is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.

Battelle took over NEON in 2016, after NSF fired the project’s original contractor, and the Columbus-based nonprofit is widely credited with putting the project on the right track. By the end of 2018 it had completed work on all but one of NEON’s data-collecting sites, for $10 million less than the latest projected cost of $469 million. At a meeting in November 2018, members of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body, welcomed the progress. “I feel we are in a very happy place,” said Inez Fung, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who had led an ad hoc panel created to keep close tabs on NEON. (Fung has since rotated off the board.) “I am looking forward to very great discoveries,” she added.

But this month’s events have clouded NEON’s future. On 4 January, Battelle executives removed Richard Leonard, who had overseen the project’s turnaround, and ecologist Wendy Gram, a senior manager and head of engagement who had worked at NEON since 2008. Within minutes, both had been escorted out of NEON’s headquarters.

Collinge, who took a 2-year leave from the University of Colorado in Boulder when she joined NEON in February 2018, says Battelle gave her no notice of the firings. She sees them as the final straw in a series of developments that had undermined her ability to lead the observatory.

“I have not been granted the authority to be successful,” she wrote to Battelle officials as she announced her decision to return a year early to her tenured position as a professor of environmental studies. Battelle had promised that she would have the power to “allocate resources, both human and financial,” Collinge says, and the firings were a breach of that agreement.

Battelle, however, has said Collinge could not have hiring and firing authority because she is not an employee of the nonprofit. And Patrick Jarvis, Battelle’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, says a management change was needed as NEON shifts from construction to operation.

“Since we are shifting our focus, we decided to streamline our management structure to use our funds most efficiently,” Jarvis told Science. He says soil scientist Eugene Kelly, who spent a year as NEON’s top scientist during the transition to Battelle, has agreed to return in an acting capacity until a permanent observatory director is hired. The new head will have “a free hand” in deciding how to reconstitute any advisory structure, Jarvis adds.

Restoring the committee is crucial, some former members of NEON’s advisory panel say. STEAC was “the primary means of communication and guidance between the scientific community and NEON,” they note in their letter. “These [advisory] structures must be able to tell an organization what it may not want to hear, without fear of retaliation,” they write. That independence was lacking, say former STEAC members, because the panel reported to Battelle, not to NSF—a relationship that appears to be unique among the many large facilities that NSF has funded and operates through contractors.

How NSF responds to the latest crisis will be key to NEON’s future. But its reaction has been muted by the current partial government shutdown, which has furloughed the NSF staffers who oversee the project.

One question is whether Battelle’s contract to manage NEON will be renewed when the current agreement ends in September 2020. NSF selected the firm “because they know how to build things and because we were facing a crisis,” says Fung, adding that board members expect “a robust competition” for the next contract.

Some scientists wonder whether it’s time for a change. “Battelle rescued NEON and did an excellent job of building it out,” says plant biologist Scott Collins of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a STEAC member who worked at NSF when NEON was hatched. “But they don’t know how to run an ecological observatory.”

Despite the current turmoil, ecologists are still rooting for NEON to succeed. But a tweet Desai posted shortly after getting the news about this month’s shake-up reflects what many worry might happen instead: “Great data, no users, no trust = failure.”